Melmoth by Sarah Perry

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Review by Alice Farrant

melmoth sarah perry

Helen Franklin is self-repressed, restricting herself from all that is pleasurable or happy. She merely exists alongside Prague, parallel to its beauty. When suddenly, she is given a manuscript of accounts all linked to a spectre named Melmoth, she is forced to look back to the events that built her self-imposed prison.

Once literal and now mythical, Melmoth was one of the women who opened Christ’s tomb after he was crucified and buried and saw he was no longer there. When the group of women went to tell the men what they had seen she was the only one to deny Christ’s resurrection and said they had made it up. She was punished not with death, “but with deathlessness” cursed to wander the earth until Christ returned again. “Condemned always to appear where all’s most cheerless, dark and deadly.”

Helen is drawn to these dark papers, all the while sensing something is watching and following her. As the weeks’ events unfold Helen must either face what she did or wander the darkness forever

“Helen Franklin, forty-two, neither short nor tall, her hair neither dark nor fair; on her feet, boots which serve from November to March, and her mother’s steel watch on her wrist.” (p1)

Helen, the main character of the novel, is a quiet woman, conservative with possessions and friends. Her only acquaintances are the intellectual, Karel and his wife, Thea. She shrouds her past protectively and denies herself pleasurable human interaction. 

“Nor can she recall when Albína first observed her rituals of discomfort: the uncovered mattress, the unheated room, the bitter tea. But she did notice, as she noticed all things: slyly, from the corner of her black eye.”

She rents a room from Albína, a 90 something woman who is decedent both in possessions and cutting criticism. Helen residence is no accident, living with Albína is as much a punishment as the bare mattress she sleeps on. Albína is fascinated by Helen, ignoring her quiet and privacy regularly. Yet Helen is one of her only friends, in her longevity living there and seeming tolerance of Albína’s insults Helen has made a relationship without even meaning to.

Melmoth haunts the pages of the novel. Perry is fantastic at taking myths and fairytales and breathing life into them for not only the characters, as they heal themselves or come to some understanding or acceptance of who they are, but the reader too. Melmoth sat with me as I read the novel, guided me to its end. It is human nature to find meaning in the spiritual or inanimate, and Melmouth embodies this.

“A brighter child than I might have found himself living in bewilderment and delight, for in place of a modest village and a single church, I had within arm’s reach the city of a thousand spires, which glittered on the banks of a great river: of staircases steep as mountainsides, and buildings plastered and painted in the colours of girls’ dresses in spring, and Prague castle which rose up from the Vltava seeming black and terrible.”

Perry writes as though she is a native, Prague and the Czech Republic comes alive in her prose. Both the beauty and darkness of the city. Melmoth covers time, and we see Prague at it’s best and worst. Hiter’s occupation from the eyes of a small boy was fascinating, the confusion at his parent’s emotional reaction to this man — tears of reverence.

The narration takes different forms, switching between third and 1st person. While I enjoyed this Dracula-esque mix of omniscient narration, letters and character narration, the omniscient narrator irritated me. It reminded me strongly of The Book Theif and I felt myself resisting everytime it told me where to look. It removed me from the storytelling, I was lost in the story and then pulled out by the narrator tugging at my sleeve and pushing me into the direction of where I was meant to be looking. Subjectively, I prefer not to be told, it makes me want to rebel, trick me into thinking I came to these decisions on my own instead

It was rarely clear to me (in the best of ways) whether Melmoth was real or a metaphor for Helen having and recovering from a breakdown. Melmoth encourages change and revitalisation, pushes characters to change their lives. For Karel this is going off to England to fight for a cause, for Helen, it is to escape her self imposed prison and confront her past.

To accept Melmoth is to give in, to accept a less than satisfactory way of living or a self-loathing. Which is why she wanders alone, she inspires more change than a desire to escape.

Melmoth is another wonderfully clever novel by Sarah Perry. At times it felt long and I wanted Melmoth to be more figurative than literal, but overall this was an enjoyable and escaping read.

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You can read more by Alice at her blog, of Books, or find her on Instagram @nomoreparades

Perry, Sarah Melmoth, (Serpents Tale: London, 2018). 978-1788160650 288pp., hardback.

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