Book review: Melmoth by Sarah Perry

Sat on one of the pews in the Unitarian Octagon Church, I cannot help but be in awe of the space. The Book Hive owners were quite right, we would not have all fit in the shop. Once upon a time, before Sarah Perry had become Sarah Perry, her book launches had been hosted in the independent bookseller’s store. But for the evening, and for Melmoth in particular, there could be no better space – the eight-sided structure means that everyone can see everything, and the Unitarian church celebrates authenticity, seeking love and justice in the world. It seems apt for this Gothic tale of the ever-watching Melmoth the wanderer, Melmoth the witness.

‘Ooh, it’s quite dark!’ remarks Perry, as she’s given the pages chosen for the reading, and that same darkness permeates each and every page. The ‘drab creature’ that we meet at the novel’s outset is our … ‘heroine? – that’s pushing it a bit’. Helen Franklin is eager to slip through life unnoticed, hiding much like some of Melmoth’s other victims that we are introduced to. These are not like the cast of characters in The Essex Serpent, a cast of determined individuals and leaders eager to act; Melmoth’s characters are those who run, those who carry the burden of guilt, and those who are eager to remain unseen. Perhaps they would be too if it wasn’t for the titular villain, a revisioning of Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer.

Drawing on her fundamentalist Christian upbringing, Perry weaves the biblical into her own created myth of Melmoth. Consequently, she crafts a character as memorable as the literary greats: Frankenstein, Dracula, Faustus. Discussing her fascination with the Gothic and with Biblical parables, Perry notes how such tales and myths allow ‘communities to encode and discuss their own fears and desires’ and to allow them to make sense of their world. One might read Melmoth as an attempt to bring back this type of literature to a disenchanted world where politics is beyond comprehension and humanity’s outlook on the world seems bleak. Certainly Perry sees the work as a ‘moral object’, written with ‘real rage’ and through the pain of a prolonged illness.

The novel’s melancholic tone and wintry Prague setting sounds unlike the Sarah Perry that we know and love, but Melmoth is like a refreshing gust of icy air. It pierces you and lingers; the sense of Melmoth’s gaze will haunt you long after the final page.

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August 2022
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