My experience of reading Melmoth, Sarah Perry’s follow-up to the award-winning The Essex Serpent, very much mirrored the experience of the unfortunate characters who imagined that they’d encountered the Melmoth in this atmospheric novel that will chill you to the marrow.
In Melmoth, Sarah Perry takes the mythology of the Wandering Jew and gives it a feminist tweak. Her Melmoth The Witness was one of the women who saw Jesus resurrected, but then denied it. Now she must she remain in exile until the Messiah comes again, walking even as her feet bleed while she seeks out the wicked, the craven, to join her in her lonely damnation. Perry creates a compelling and convincing legend around her version of Melmoth - that she can be traced throughout history and across continents, spoken of in whispers by those who’ll leave a chair out for her so she can rest her weary bones.
And then in modern day Prague, we meet Helen Franklin, a translator, forcing herself to live a pinched, miserable existence devoid of all pleasure as penance for some terrible and yet unknown crime. When her friend, Karel, gives her a manuscript written by a man who encountered Melmoth after he betrayed his friends during World War Two (and has subsequently recorded previous sightings of her) Helen thinks it’s superstitious nonsense. Then Karel disappears and Helen begins to imagine that she can sense the presence of Melmoth who greets her quarry with the plaintive cry of ‘Oh my friend, won’t you take my hand, I’ve been so lonely!’
Perry has created a true gothic masterpiece, so rich in imagery that the reader can smell the blood of massacres that happened centuries ago, and the damp walls and boiled cabbage of crumbling apartment buildings. There are entire worlds contained in the pages of this novel and it reads as a recently discovered lost classic rather than the work of a very much alive and contemporary author.
It’s also, quite simply, terrifying. Especially if you are, like me, of a nervous disposition and overactive imagination – I had to force myself to keep turning the pages of Melmothbecause gore and blood and scary monsters are not the sort of thing that gives me nightmares. What had me too frightened to go to sleep (was that noise a car door slamming in the street outside or Melmoth coming for me?) or stay asleep was the creeping dread that Perry so skilfully weaves into her words.
The suggestion of Melmoth, something glimpsed out of the corner of your eye, a prickling sensation at the back of your neck, something moving in the shadows, is far more insidious than ever coming face to face with the unhappy wanderer. As is the dawning realisation that maybe we’re all deserving of the attention of Melmoth. That she sees us as we truly are, ferrets out the unpalatable truths and weaknesses that we all possess but try so hard to hide.
So much as I loved Melmoth, and the beauty and sheer ambition of Perry’s writing left me awestruck, it was still a really difficult and protracted read for me. I’d only open the book in daylight, preferably in a public place, but it still scared the wits out of me. A masterpiece, but not for the faint-hearted or the impressionable.
Melmoth by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail, £16.99, out October 2nd)