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Melmoth by Sarah Perry

Melmoth (2018)

by Sarah Perry

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Oh my friend, my darling—won't you take my hand? I've been so lonely!

I told my wife this book reminded me, in a way, of the tv show, Hannibal. Not because of any actual plot similarity (Perry's novel is devoid of serial killers) but more in the opulent, baroque, and ominous style in both.

It's extravagant. Melodramatic. Wuthering Heights and mezzo-sopranos dying on stage. Tea-and-rainy-day moody. A bit like Byatt's Possession, only far more brief. It has all the atmosphere and setting of a book I love, so I'm especially crushed that I didn't love it!

Inspired by a Victorian novel about a man named Melmoth, Perry instead imagines that Melmoth is a haunted woman who sees people's sins and invites them to spend eternity with her. Helen, ex-pat in Prague and suffering self-imposed punishment, learns about Melmoth from a friend, who learns about Melmoth from a friend. An urban legend of sorts, only Helen is handed a variety of documents that describe interactions with Melmoth.

It was the stories within the novel that most gutted me, Helen's in particular (I don't think I'll be able to forget it). But I was expecting so much more from the novel the Guardian said was "one of the great literary achievements of our young century."

In the end, I can't say I understood why. Why Melmoth, of all the stories to retell? Why make Melmoth a woman? Why didn't she feel more haunting and scary? Why did it seem so easy to resist her? Why a barrister character that did no pleading nor arguing in a book that seemed all about right and wrong? (I've a few more whys but sharing them will spoil the plot!)

I expect I missed all that was brilliant and landed with all that was easy. Still, what was easy was interesting -- stay-up-late-to-finish compelling -- but not a favorite (unlike her previous, The Essex Serpent). ( )
1 vote unabridgedchick | Jan 7, 2019 |
I always hate starting off the year with a disappointing read. I loved Sarah Perry's last book, The Essex Serpent, and was really looking forward to Melmoth. There were elements of the supernatural in The Essex Serpent, but it was, to me, much more a story about characters, their relationships, and the struggles they faced in Victorian England. Here, although there is a psychological element, Perry seems to have been overwhelmed by the creepy and the desire to write a book that would appeal to readers who are love both literary and creepy books. Unfortunately, she failed. The result is a book that seems to have been based on a lot of research that the author didn't quite know what to do with. To a great extent, she just shoves that research into the book as research done by her characters, surrounded by a rather week plot.

The legend of Melmoth the Wanderer (known variously by other names) exists in many countries. One of the women who found Christ's tomb empty on the third day, Melmoth later denied that anything miraculous had happened and was condemned to wander the earth looking for a companion. She's depicted as the typical wraith: draped in swirling, filmy black cloth, he eyes hollow, her feet bloody from centuries of walking. Helen Franklin, the novel's main character, has lived in Prague for over 20 years. A quiet, solitary, mousy woman who translates equipment manuals for a living, she has befriended Karel, a professor, and his English wife, Thea, recently wheelchair-bound by a stroke. One day Karel calls her, frantic to set up a meeting, at which he thrusts into her hands half of a manuscript. It contains the research of Josef Hoffman, an elderly man who has recently died; the focus is reported sightings of Melmoth, who has a history of appearing to people in desperate situations or consumed with guilt. Shortly thereafter, Karel disappears, leaving Helen to watch over Thea and to continue reading the documents he has left her. The more she reads, the more she has a sense of being followed. Is it Melmoth? Or is it a secret from her past? Things start to both fall into place and get crazier when Thea gives Helen the second half of Hoffman's manuscript.

All I can say, in conclusion, is that I was mightily disappointed. The plot is transparent, the "surprises" not very surprising, and the structure weak. I would have given the book a lower rating if it hadn't been for Perry's fine writing. And I suppose one could read it as a study of human cruelty and selfishness, something we should all be attuned to these days. ( )
1 vote Cariola | Jan 2, 2019 |
I am glad I finished the book. At times the concept seemed to much for me. I struggled with the concept that people could be so caught up in the writing of an old man who told the story of a woman who denied Christ and was doomed to walk the world forever. And yet, I had to keep reading to see how Helen could regain the life she wanted, and not be consumed by Melmoth. And the real scary part of this book, is not the mythology but the cruelty of humans. ( )
  brangwinn | Dec 29, 2018 |
Melmoth was an impulse choice, on display at the library and I’d seen it online somewhere amongst the blogs I read. Sarah Perry is the author of The Essex Serpent which won multiple awards, and I had hovered over that one at the library too, ultimately deciding that I probably wouldn’t like it.

What I had forgotten about Melmoth is that it has antecedents in 1001 Books You Must Read. Wikipedia reminds me that Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by an Irish Protestant clergyman called Charles Robert Maturin is a classic Gothic horror story on a Faustian theme, and Honore de Balzac wrote a (rather liverish) follow-up story called Melmoth Reconciled (which I’ve summarised at Goodreads, if you are so inclined).

Well, Perry’s Melmoth is moralistic too, despite its blurb which claims the book to be:
a masterpiece of moral complexity, asking us profound questions about mercy, redemption, and how to make the best of our conflicted world.

First of all, the entire premise of the book is flawed. Perry’s Melmoth is a woman condemned to walk the earth for centuries because she refused to be a witness to the resurrection of Christ. Now, if you know the Jesus story at all (and most people surely do), you know that he was the poster boy for redemption, not Old Testament or Sisyphusian punishments for eternity. And unlike the original Melmoth who knowingly bought into his Faustian pact for personal gain, this female Melmoth gained nothing for her ‘sin’.

To read the rest of my review please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2018/12/17/melmoth-by-sarah-perry/ ( )
  anzlitlovers | Dec 16, 2018 |
A modern gothic. Helen Franklin, working in Prague, is given papers which are first-person accounts of persons having seen and had interaction with a mysterious "Wandering Jew"-type woman: Melmoth, sentenced to wander the earth and observe evil that humans do. Helen herself had perpetrated a mercy killing and other characters had done some sort of evil: e.g., a Philippine pharmacist's assistant, a Jewish family in the 1930s, a low-level Ottoman bureaucrat. The story was eerie and the best thing about it was the author's conveying the atmosphere through her style: the overhanging sense of mystery and dread. Sometimes I had goosebumps from her descriptions. ( )
  janerawoof | Dec 1, 2018 |
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Keep your mind in hell, and despair not. Silouan the Athonite quoted in Love's Work by Gillian Rose
In Memoriam Charles Robert Maturin
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My dear Mr. Prazan - How deeply I regret that I must put this document in your hands, and so make you the witness to what I have done!
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