Melmoth by Sarah Perry

J. L. Harland • September 14th, 2020

Melmoth follows Sarah Perry’s highly acclaimed novel The Essex Serpent. Set in present times it has the feeling of an earlier age and a story that keeps you thinking long after you close the pages. It was Observer Best Fiction Book of the Year in 2018.

When Helen Franklin, an Englishwoman living in Prague, meets her friend Karel in the street he is agitated. He has been reading a file with documents relating to Melmoth, a legendary figure that stalks the earth. The testimonies he has read has sent him slightly crazy and, as Helen becomes drawn into the same documents, she too becomes affected by the stories she reads.

Helen’s life and relationships with her limited number of friends is interspersed with the testimonies of others who have seen Melmoth and been affected by her presence. Melmoth is both gentle, persuasive and compelling but also a terrifying figure. ‘She was gaunt and tall and terrible to look at.’

Helen is haunted, aware of every footstep, feeling eyes upon her. But is she afraid of Melmoth, or the darkness within herself? She lives a life of penance, choosing to refuse any comfort in life, believing that she deserves to be punished for a crime she committed twenty years previously. Melmoth had played witness to her crime and now Helen feels that the wanderer is seeking her out, demanding justice. Her fear is palpable, and the reader shares that fear.

Part ghost story, part horror and with themes of justice, retribution, guilt, redemption and betrayal this is a novel to keep the reader thinking. The setting of Prague in the winter adds to the creepy atmosphere of this Gothic novel, leaving the reader to feel Melmoth’s eyes watching, waiting in the shadows.

The myth of Melmoth is brought to life here – the figure condemned to walk the earth, feet bleeding, until Judgement Day. Melmoth witnesses the worst of humanity; the atrocities men commit against each other.

This is not an easy read. It is the sort of book that would encourage re-reading as the stories within the story are so wide ranging in nature. From Helen’s own secret crime to the Holocaust it raises many questions in the mind of the reader.

Melmoth is published by Serpent’s Tail. This is Sarah Perry’s third novel, another Gothic tale following the success of The Essex Serpent.

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