Book Review – Melmoth by Sarah Perry

books, reviews

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I don’t know what’s happened to me in the last few months. Reading just isn’t going as well for me as it was in the first half of the year. I don’t even know if I’m going to manage to get to 100 in 2022 let alone beat my reading score from last year. On the plus side, I have read a few books that have been on my TBR for a while. This is one of those books. Due to my history with classic gothic fiction, I was interested in this book when it came out. I possibly even have a copy of it hidden away somewhere. I found a copy on my library app and decided it was finally time to listen to it. It seemed like a good book for the winter months. There’s nothing like a good creepy book on a chilly night. Especially a book that I’ve been looking forward to reading.

Melmoth is Sarah Perry’s third novel and one that is based on the 1820 gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin. The original book was about a man who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for 150 more years of life. He then searches the world for someone who will take over the pact for him. The novel is made up of a series of stories-within-stories that gradually the story of Melmoth’s life. In Sarah Perry’s version, the titular Melmoth is a woman but is inspired by Maturin’s basic structure. The main story is broken up by historical documents that all confirm the existence of a ghostly figure who wanders the Earth.

These documents end up in the hands of Helen Franklin who works as a translator in Prague. Helen is a fairly pitiable woman and lives an extraordinary life. She is first introduced to the myth of Melmoth by her friend, Karel. Melmoth, or Melmotka as she is known in Prague, is a woman who wanders the Earth in despair and loneliness. The documents that Karel gives to Helen depict a figure who appears to people in times of sorrow. She then beckons them towards her and invites them to join her. The people in the documents span the course of human history and come from various walks of life. The thing that combines them is Melmoth’s presence during the most horrific moments of their lives.

Melmoth is a book that explores actions and consequences. Melmoth is the witness to a lot of awful behaviour but is watching ever enough. What must we do to create a positive change in the world? How do we encourage people to make amends? It is only through action that wrongdoing can ever be undone. Guilt and self-punishment don’t achieve anything. The book shows that you need to be present in the world to make a difference. This is why the ending is so positive. It marks a change in Helen and an acceptance of her position in the world. The novel definitely raises a lot of questions and I certainly think that it’s an interesting novel. Perry has written a very enjoyable tribute to Maturin’s novel.

Ultimately, I was mainly engrossed with the historic documents. I think the ending to Helen’s story is very well done but it took a while for me to really get involved in this story. I found that the format made it harder to care about Helen for the most part. I would have been happy to just hear more about the people who encountered Melmoth. There are plenty of stand-out amongst them but none more so than the confession of a German man about his treatment of Jewish people during the war. As a child, he was swept away in the lie of nationalism and doubled down on his sense of self-importance. It is only when he meets Melmoth that he realises the true consequences of his actions and realises he should try to make amends. Although, by that point, it will have little impact.

Gothic tropes have been associated with historical and social commentary since the first gothic romance. It’s not a big surprise that Perry includes many important historic events and realistic horrors in her pages. She is taking up the tradition of speaking about these atrocities through the narrative of her book. However, I also feel as though there is more of a disconnect here. Melmoth moves beyond the traditional creepy gothic conventions to become something so much more. It forces you to confront the absolute worst of humanity in a very explicit way. For me, I think these references worked against the supernatural elements of the novel. The tone just ended up seeming a bit confused.

This is an undoubtedly accomplished book by a very good writer. I just think it’s another case of an author getting too caught up in the source material to really get their vision on the page. Had Perry not had such a great love for Maturin’s work, this could have been an absolutely outstanding book. There are a few aspects of the story that are underdeveloped and certain key reveals are way too obvious. Certainly, I enjoyed reading it but was always hoping for something more to fully grab me.

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