Review: Melmoth by Sarah Perry

A15Zne-lCL Melmoth [2018] – ★★1/2 

First, I would like to say that I loved Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent [2016], its historical context, its beautiful prose, its main character, its plot – it read (almost, perhaps) like a modern classic, and it was a very enjoyable experience. Melmoth is Perry’s third book in which she focuses on the legend of Melmoth the Wanderer as it is seen through the eyes of modern-day characters living in Prague. In this story, Helen Franklin is a forty-something-year-old woman living in the Czech Republic in 2016 and working as a translator. She strikes up a friendship with one “posh” couple Karel and Thea, and it is through them that she reads a mysterious manuscript that details the confessions of certain people who allegedly had an encounter with Melmoth or Melmotka (a lonely woman who once denied the resurrection of Christ and is doomed to wander the Earth forever bearing witness to the humanity’s cruelty). The obsession with the manuscript soon makes Helen confront her own past. Even though there is an attempt made by the author to make this book deep and philosophical by touching upon such issues as sin, guilt, regret and atonement, these messages never get across in a compelling manner, and, overall, the book feels dull and very contrived. As in The Essex Serpent, Perry uses one intriguing and spooky legend here as a bait to entice her readers into picking up this “Gothic and unsettling” book only for those readers to then discover that they, instead, have been served with merely a collection of sad personal historical accounts that the author never even managed to bring convincingly together to make her final important point on history, witnessing and responsibility.

“There is no Melmoth. There is nobody watching…there is only us…And if there is only us, we must do what Melmoth would do: see what must be seen – bear witness to what must not be forgotten.” Sarah Perry drew her inspiration for this book from Charles Maturin’s book Melmoth the Wanderer [1820]. Both the structure (such as other people’s confessions) and the theme (Melmoth/manuscripts, etc.) of Perry’s novel then reflect Maturin’s work. As with The Essex Serpent, the author also starts her book with evoking descriptions of Prague, but only then to emphasise that the main character Helen, who lives in the city, has little interest in her beautiful historic surroundings. Helen is “small, insignificant, having about her an air of sadness whose source you cannot guess at”. What Helen cares about is her job and…”self-punishment”. Helen has recently been shown a mysterious manuscript by her friend Karel, and the latter got it from Josef Hoffman, a man who has died recently. Karel, his girlfriend Thea and then Helen become obsessed with what the manuscript has to say, and, as it turns out, Helen also has secrets to hide. Incidentally, the manuscript is filled with various confessions, and hints at Melmoth, a lonely woman who travels the Earth and encounters people at pivotal and desperate moments in their lives – when they have to make very hard decisions.

In Melmoth, the dullness of events that are happening in the present is offset by tragic events that the author wants to show through other people’s confessions in the manuscript. Thus, we read of a German boy growing up under the Nazis in Czechoslovakia and his terrible mistake and guilt in relation to some innocent people he knew at the time when Czechoslovakia fell under the Nazi regime. Given the “Gothic-mystery” marketing of Melmoth, all the elements of the book that hint at free will, guilt and redemption discussions seem to have been introduced by the back door. Perhaps the spectre of Melmoth also represents something on the outside that mirrors how people feel inside, providing them with the relief of having an outside force to blame or rely upon when remembering, and all this might have been thought-provoking if it were also not presented so misleadingly and tastelessly. The reader is at first distracted and is supposed to be “thrilled” by the spookiness of Prague and all the nocturnal pursuits through the cobblestone streets, and then has to deal with such a heavy topic as the Holocaust. Trivial and odd actions by the characters, a fantastical “Melmoth” or spooky and mysterious thrills are probably not the elements one wants to consider alongside such serious topics as the Holocaust or the massacre of Armenians. 

Even the author’s beautiful prose cannot rescue the book this time. Unlike in The Essex Serpent, the language of Perry in Melmoth comes across as unnecessarily “flowery” and even pretentious. If the “dreamy” and slightly archaic language turns in The Essex Serpent fitted beautifully the historical period and plot in that story, Perry’s attempt to slightly modify that prose and apply it to the present-day events in Melmoth does not leave a good impression. Perry is a very talented author, but her odd comparisons and sentences in Melmoth are more likely to raise eyebrows than be considered instantly “beautiful”. For example, there is this passage in the novel: “later Helen understood that his partner and his subject were really all that ever occupied his thoughts – that he was like a man who dines so well on the dishes he likes that he has no appetite for anything else”. This comparison feels both needless and random. Is it there simply to provide the text with its “literary zest”?

Melmoth incorporates the story of Melmoth the Witness, and we are certainly witnessing something here and should probably care. However, the question becomes – would we really? The author makes it very hard to care, especially by her decision to introduce so many characters and stories that her reader will hardly expect in the first place, let alone have time or sufficient incentive to emotionally invest in.

10 thoughts on “Review: Melmoth by Sarah Perry

  1. Interesting. You’ve made me curious. I too, loved ‘The Essex Serpent’ – found it totally by chance on a street book shelf somewhere. Think I have to add this one to the ‘to read’ list. Thanks.

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    1. I am glad to find another person who loved The Essex Serpent! Melmoth is different. I think it does have to come with a warning because I really think it is not quite what most people expect of it.

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  2. I bought the Essex Serpent but for some reason I couldn’t get into it even after trying multiple times, isn’t it funny how some books are like this for some people but not others. I do like the sound of this plot that you have outlined though, and if I saw this book somewhere I would likely get it and give it a go. Thanks for another great review Diana very enjoyable, another one for the list 🙂

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    1. You are welcome, and thanks for reading! I liked the outline of Melmoth too – only everything changes when one starts actually reading it, I think 🙂 I guess it is worth trying reading it, and if you decide to do so I will be very curious to know what you think.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It sounds like the author had some interesting ideas, but didn’t quite manage to bring them to life in a compelling manner. Too bad it couldn’t live up to The Essex Serpent, but Perry still sounds like an author worth following. Good, balanced review!

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