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Review: Melmoth - Sarah Perry

Genre: Literary Fiction Published: Serpentstail, October 2018 My rating: 4/5 stars

Set against the darkly atmospheric décor of the city of Prague is the story of a woman, haunted by guilt and loneliness.

Helen Franklin is an English translator, who happens upon a mysterious file, containing letters and diary entries from different periods of history. Not only do all of them share themes of guilt, exile and redemption, they also share the presence of an ominous creature, old as the numbering of days and straight from the depths of occult folklore: Melmoth the Witness. Through the eyes of both Helen and the multiple letter-writers (from different times in history), we find out more about this being. Who is Melmoth? What is her purpose? Is she a product of folktales, or maybe something more…

Over the short timespan since the first readers got their hands on it, Melmoth has gotten mixed reviews, and understandably so. For everything there is to love, there is also something to hate, which coincidently mirrors the theme of the book pretty well…

First things first: I don’t think I have to establish the fact that Sarah Perry is an extremely skilled author. Her prose is as gorgeous as it was in the Essex Serpent, and has even taken it a step further here. The entire novel is structured like an 18th century gothic horror story, using many of the literary devices and pacing of that time. It does so to the extend that I, at times, forgot I was reading about contemporary times, and was imagining historical settings for the characters. The mentioning of a cellphone would then completely throw me off and remind me that it is in fact set in modern times. The recreation of this classical style is honestly one of the most unique things this novel has going for it and the one of the biggest testaments to Perrys craftmanship as an author. It’s also one of the novels biggest potential downfalls. Melmoth is very “literary”, for lack of a better term. Its awareness of what it’s doing may come across to some as pretentiousness. It also treads the very thin line of becoming a gimmick, and sometimes lands on the wrong side of it. This is my one, but major criticism of the novel. I really wish I could say it didn’t bother me, but frankly it did. Going hand in hand with the gothic setting are the dark atmosphere and themes. Where The Essex Serpent interwove darkness with beautiful, almost romantic scenery, Melmoth is much bleaker in tone and therefore more difficult to read. The characters are raw and deeply flawed. It takes a while to get to know them, and once you do, you are not guaranteed to like them. Just like real people. Yet my favourite character may not be a real person at all: Melmoth herself. I loved the way she was portrayed and what she meant. Spoilers ahead for my interpretation of her in the next paragraph.

In my opinion, Melmoth is the manifestation of loneliness, grief and most importantly: guilt. I loved how the complexity of those emotions are captured in the duality of her nature. Melmoth is not a simplified boogieman. She is repulsive, terrifying and mean, yet also ever present, familiar and deceptively comforting to the point where you want to disappear in her dark embrace. I actually know that feeling well...

“Oh my friend, my darling. Won’t you take my hand? I’ve been so lonely…”

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