‘Melmoth’ by Sarah Perry tells the story of Helen Franklin, a British woman in her forties working as a translator in Prague where she has lived for some twenty years in self-imposed exile. Her friend Karel has come into possession of the papers of fellow scholar Josef Hoffman who has recently been found dead in the National Library. Among the papers is a manuscript which tells of Melmoth the Witness, an obscure legend in which, according to superstition, Melmoth travels through the ages, persuading those wracked with guilt to wander alongside her on a journey of eternal damnation. Helen’s initial scepticism of the legend wanes when Karel disappears and she is forced to confront the reasons why she cannot forgive herself for the outcome of events in her own past.
The main inspiration behind Sarah Perry’s third novel is a little-known 1820 novel ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’ by Charles Maturin in which a man makes a pact with the devil to extend his life by 150 years. However, I found it isn’t necessary to read it first in order to appreciate her contemporary take on Maturin’s novel in which her interpretation of Melmoth is female even if some of the finer subversions were inevitably lost on me. Whereas Perry’s 2016 novel The Essex Serpent was notable for its 21st century themes and fiercely independent female characters in a late Victorian context, ‘Melmoth’ is primarily based around a modern-day setting but interspersed with an unusual combination of old-fashioned styles and pastiches through the contents of Josef’s eclectic collection of papers. There is a lot packed in to less than 300 pages here – the contemporary setting of Prague (where Perry was based as a UNESCO writer-in-residence in 2016), the papers which reveal what happened to Josef’s family during the Holocaust and Helen’s memories of her travels in the Philippines twenty years earlier where we finally discover why she has been punishing herself for so long.
Knowing that Perry wrote this novel while under the influence of powerful opiates to treat serious health issues of her own explains the feverish even hallucinatory tone of much of the book and also why extreme pain is the main preoccupation of several characters, particularly Helen. For readers not currently in this frame of mind, the pastiches in the multiple narratives of ‘Melmoth’ are a bit overdone at times and not quite as effective as ‘The Essex Serpent’ in my view, but it is a richly imagined novel and certainly worth a read for those who enjoy fiction with a Gothic sensibility.