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Book Review: 'Melmoth' by Sarah Perry*

Welcome to my first ever book review on the blog! I'm excited to share my thoughts with you on Sarah Perry's latest release 'Melmoth' - a dark and sinister tale. If you've not read the book yet do not fear, you can still read the blog post. If I plan on writing any spoilers I will always signpost it at the start of the paragraph and you can scroll ahead.

I was excited to delve into the world that Perry creates in her novel 'Melmoth'. Having previously read, and really enjoyed, her work in 'The Essex Serpent' I was eager to see how Perry continues to captivate the reader with her delicate combination of realism and fantasy. Much like 'The Essex Serpent', 'Melmoth' focuses on the characters' captivation and obsession over a mythical and sinister figure. This time Perry writes of a woman dressed in black with bleeding feet. Melmoth the Witness, as legend has it in the novel, was one of the women who discovered Christ's empty grave on Easter Sunday. The story goes that Melmoth denied Jesus' resurrection and thus was damned to walk the earth for eternity. She witnesses humanity's darkest moments and confronts individuals with their sins, asking them to join her in eternal damnation.

Perry sets the story in Prague and follows one woman's life, Helen, as a framework to explore this mythical character. The novel opens with Helen receiving a manuscript from her friend Karel. This manuscript, known as 'The Hoffman Papers' contains accounts of people's encounters with Melmoth and it seems that whoever has the unfortunate pleasure of owning the manuscript, becomes obsessed with finding out more about this sinister woman and begins to question their own morality.

The novel follows Helen's journey in confronting her own sins and learning more about Melmoth, but it is also interspersed with extracts from The Hoffman Papers. As such we are presented with several short stories throughout the novel. These were my favourite sections of the book, for example Josef Hoffman's retelling of his childhood growing up in Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia was particularly compelling - it is always interesting to see a dark period of history through the eyes of a child and Perry perfectly captures the inevitable confusion and naivety that would surely have been experienced at that time. Similarly towards the end of the novel we hear Helen's retelling of her greatest sin, which made a captivating read. I won't go into detail here for fear of spoiling it for you. These stories as stand alone pieces work really well, however I was far less intrigued by the overarching plot that held them all together. Helen as a protagonist felt slightly hollow, perhaps because we did not learn the complexity of her character's past until very late into the book. For me, I prefer to have a stronger throughline, though can appreciate Perry's experimentation with form.

One of Perry's greatest strengths as a writer is to create a vivid atmosphere for the novel. This was done to great effect. She chose to set the novel in Prague, and her descriptions of the historical architecture and towering spires of the city made for a wonderful backdrop to explore a sinister story. Similarly the presence of Melmoth was apparent throughout the book, whether through a cold chill in the air, a creak of a floorboard, or an empty chair at the dinner table. She brilliantly created the ghost of the character and I found myself wondering whether such a supernatural figure could really exist after all. For the most part the novel felt very embedded in history, clearly well researched, and rather like reading an 18th century Gothic novel. This meant that any references to modern technology, such as laptops or mobile phones, felt incredibly jarring and distanced me from the atmosphere. It's a nice idea to try and replicate a gothic style in a modern setting, but for me it felt misaligned.

I'd like to share a quote from the novel:

"The veil that hangs between what is real and what is not has been torn" (page 253)

For me this quote perfectly captures the book's style. Perry deliberately blurs the lines between reality and fantasy by incorporating dream sequences and visions throughout the novel. The reader is left wondering what we are to take as fact or fiction. This playful style can be frustrating at times, but surrendering to not knowing what we are supposed to believe led to a more enjoyable reading experience.

This paragraph contains spoilers. The ending for me was a little disappointing. The arrival of Helen's ex-lover, the victim of her most heinous sin, was a lovely touch. It was as if Helen's paranoia about Melmoth had been unfounded and instead she had been haunted by her guilt over her treatment of this man all along. By re-meeting her victim, Helen was confronted with her sins in the same way that the characters in the manuscripts had been confronted by Melmoth. This would have been the perfect ending in my opinion, a lovely metaphorical flourish to suggest that we will all encounter Melmoth and that she appears in many forms. The rather dramatic twist that followed which revealed her friend's nurse, Adaya, to be the embodiment of Melmoth felt unnecessary - rather like the murderer reveal in an Agatha Christie story. For me, this was not needed. It is open to interpretation as to whether this was merely an illusion, but for me the far stronger message of the novel came from the confrontation of Helen's past, rather than a literal encounter with Melmoth. It felt a bit too on the nose.

Ultimately I did enjoy this book, namely for it's gothic atmosphere and the short story sections, but if you're looking to encounter Perry's work for the fist time I'd definitely point you towards 'The Essex Serpent' instead.

Hope you enjoyed my review and I'll see you next week!

Meg x

*Please note I am transferring content from my old website and this post was originally published on 10th March 2020.

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