2 November 2018

Melmoth by Sarah Perry

Our sleepy garden

The remnants of Halloween candy, leftover from Wednesday night's trick or treaters, sit on the counter, it's getting colder by the day, and an almost relentless mist/rain spits from grey skies.  And ten days ago, my sweet two year-old Border Collie bit me on the chin for nine stitches.  Never kiss a sleeping dog!  When I showed up at work a couple of hours later, colleagues asked if a plastic surgeon was called in because the wound was on my face, which made me laugh.  The image of a diva, bleeding through her gauze, rebuffing the help of the attending resident comes to mind and I'm much too practical for that.  As it turns out, I'm healing fantastically well and like to tease that Vogue just might reconsider cancelling my contract.  So yes, the atmosphere has felt distinctly Gothic around here lately.  But on to Melmoth....

Helen Franklin, an English ex-pat living in Prague, works as a translator.  She lives in austere surroundings with a meddling woman in her ninetieth year, whose clothes are nearly always dotted with previous meals.  Helen's most meaningful friendship is with Karel Pra┼żan, whom she met while studying at the cafe in the National Library of the Czech Republic.  She seems slightly out of place in the city`s landscape, despite being a resident of it for twenty years.  The same amount of time Helen has been denying herself the pleasure of eating until satisfied; the first clue that something haunts her from the past.

Karel befriends a curmudgeonly old man, who sits every day in the same carrel at the library for long stretches of time.  Josef Hoffman writes obsessively, filling page after page, but no one knows what it is he works away at so diligently.  Then one day, Josef's heavy leather file is delivered into Karel's possession with a note....

'How deeply I regret that I must put this document in your hands, and so make you the witness to what I have done!'

Josef has felt the stare of cold black eyes following him, but when he turns around, there is no one there.  Having made a study of collecting stories in which a female spectre has haunted people throughout the ages, Josef feels the black eyes of Melmoth now boring into him.  He has been compelled to face his actions while still a child in the face of Nazi occupation.

Through a series of vignettes from the past, we realize the stories that make you cringe with horror are no more horrific than what unfolds on the news each day.  Melmoth bears 'witness to what must not be forgotten'.  So is Melmoth a symbol associated with our conscience?  It certainly feels that way to me, but I`m unfamiliar with Charles Maturin`s book Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), the inspiration for Perry`s novel. Something to rectify at a later date....

Regardless of how you choose to interpret this character, Perry has been extremely clever about it.  Midway through the book there was a moment when I felt that the story wasn't what I had bought into....but it quickly passed.  The sections of bizarre imagery such as a broken seed pearl necklace, continuing to spill in streams onto the people below while watching an opera, and sinister jackdaws perching on windowsills reminded me of reading dusty fairy tales.  The parts of the book that made me pull my knees up a little higher on the sofa are the tragedies from the past, but they are examples of tragedies that continue to happen on a daily basis.  A sobering thought we are all aware of, but how deeply do we contemplate it?

I doubt the characters of this book will stay with me for very long, but the message certainly will.  And I applaud Sarah Perry for delivering three different reading experiences from each of the three books she has written.  I have no idea what to expect next, but I`m looking forward to it!  In the meantime, I`ll distract myself with a nice book about London until my nerves have settled.


  1. I'm just about to start reading this, and your review makes me eager to get started! So sorry about the dog bite, but glad you're recovering well.

  2. Thanks, Scott...and I hope you're enjoying the book! The story is sticking with me so that's a good sign. Taking a quick look to see what the autumnal temperatures are like in San Francisco, I noticed the smoke warnings - take care!