Melmoth, by Sarah Perry

Melmoth is the first of the 52 books in 52 weeks. I’m still digesting the story (it takes a while to sink in), but I thought it might be good to write down my thoughts. The trouble with ploughing through a book a week is that you lose out on thinking time.

I’ve only read one of Sarah Perry’s books before: The Essex Serpent was a tale of mythical monsters in a quiet coastal village. I found the characters a little too archetypal, but it was a well-paced, expertly written spooky read.

Melmoth is also concerned with a mythical monster: the woman who, according to legend, was one of the first women to see Christ’s empty tomb. But she contradicted her friends and denied she had seen anything unusual. For this she is condemned to walk the earth for eternity, bearing witness to terrible deeds and collecting souls who also refused to acknowledge the truth of what was happening in front of them.

The central character is a woman with a terrible deed in her past, that she tries to hide by presenting as blank a facade as possible. Living frugally in a foreign city, allowing herself no pleasure or joy in life, Helen is living a self-imposed prison sentence.

Even so, she makes friends: a couple take her under their wing and even her indomitable landlady forces sweet things on her in an attempt to get her to lighten up.

The couple, a retired English lawyer named Thea and her university academic partner, Karel, tell Helen about Melmoth, showing her stories from various sources that the book retells as Helen reads them.

As Helen delves further into the legends of Melmoth, life falls apart for Thea and Karel. Thea suffers a stroke that traps her restless intelligence and vital life force in an increasingly unco-operative body. Conversely, Helen’s body remains healthy, but her mind becomes even more of a prison as she suspects she is being watched by the mythical monster herself.

I’m not going to go any further because…spoilers…

I have to confess to a mild eyeroll at the first story of Melmoth, but as I read on I realised that each story carries a different voice: a worried 17th century English nobleman, or a Turkish bureaucrat from the early 20th century. But the central theme is how we react in the face of catastrophe. Do we turn aside and deny the truth, and what are the consequences?

Is it any good? Yes it is. Sarah Perry is wonderful at evoking time and place with economy and style. Aside from Helen, though, I found myself wondering if the characters had a life outside the plot of the novel, and even Helen was so intentionally blank, I wondered if she would survive long after the climactic ending. But for a good spooky winter’s read, it ticked all the boxes.

You can buy Melmoth from Amazon, of course. But I think you’d have much more fun if you bought it from an independent bookseller (or even a Waterstones). My absolute favourite is Rye Books in East Dulwich. They have a great selection, lovely staff and they do coffee too.

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