- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Custom House (October 16, 2018)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0062856391
- ISBN-13: 978-0062856395
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 20 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #6,427 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Melmoth: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 16, 2018
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“Reels you in, using the same trick of all the best ghost stories, from The Turn of the Screw on: Is there really a ghost before you? Or do you see the projection of your own secret sins and desires? What is more frightening than the human?” (New York Times)
“Masterful…scary and smart, working as a horror story but also a philosophical inquiry into the nature of will and love. Perry did as much in her richly praised novel The Essex Serpent, but this is a deeper, more complex novel and more rewarding.” (Washington Post)
“Ms. Perry, whose last book, “The Essex Serpent,” was a breakout hit, again proves herself a master of atmosphere.” (Wall Street Journal)
“Another Gothic stunner…a scary novel that chills to the bone even as it points the way to a warmer, more humane, place…By the end of MELMOTH, you are left with a feeling that you have experienced something wholly entertaining, and that you have found humanity and compassion in the process.” (New York Times Book Review)
“The last few years have brought a glut of fashionably affectless and amoral fiction....Sarah Perry’s fierce, full-hearted books about love and ethics feel like an antidote to that elegant apathy....In a world that feels desperate, chaotic, and unredeemable, Melmoth asks us to be witnesses for each other.” (NPR)
“Perry’s masterly piece of postmodern gothic is one of the great achievements of the century and deserves all the prizes and praise that will be heaped upon it.” (The Guardian)
“The author of The Essex Serpent casts another haunting spell in this exquisitely written gothic novel.” (People)
“A gothic masterwork.” (Entertainment Weekly)
“An unforgettable achievement…Perry’s heartbreaking, horrifying monster confronts the characters not just with the uncanny but also with the human: with humanity’s complicity in history’s darkest moments, its capacity for guilt, its power of witness, and its longing for both companionship and redemption.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))
“This fever dream of a novel will prove as compelling and all-consuming as The Essex Serpent.” (Library Journal (starred review))
About the Author
Sarah Perry is the internationally bestselling author of The Essex Serpent and After Me Comes the Flood. She lives in England.
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Who or what is Melmoth? Myth, legend, lore, mystery. That is all that Helen Franklin, an English scholar living in Prague during contemporary time, knows about this ancient essence that plagued an old dead man, Joseph Hoffman. Her friend Karel, an academic at the university, asks Helen to read a document left by Hoffman. The dipped-ink document contains narratives, letters, and journals that all mention Melmoth, a beleaguered creature that frightens and follows others. The legend of Melmoth unravels gradually as the plight of different characters, some as far back as 500 years ago, is inevitably revealed.
Like the sea serpent in THE ESSEX SERPENT, Perry writes again in gothic, mystical tones about a creature that appears to both mesmerize and control the fears of others. ESSEX SERPENT took place in the late 1800s, but with glimpses of modern times to come, and is often lively and warm. MELMOTH is a novel taking place in the 21st century, but is written in a tone and atmosphere that evokes an austere, ancient era.
Don’t expect the romantic and charming characters of the latter book; Melmoth is a grim novel about gloomy characters in a bleak setting. While reading, I felt the frost settling densely in my limbs. Don’t look for much to uplift, other than a gallows humor that is both frightening but scintillating. Perry’s way with words to construct images and surreal transmutation is never more ambitious and effective than in this tale, by turns harrowing and haunting, and inescapably gripping.
Melmoth is part of old legend, according to a library book found by Helen. It describes an itinerant and doomed woman in dark rags, appearing out of nowhere, arising from the dust, with large liquid eyes that can cut like knives, and a tortured face. Those that she follows feel her presence like a spectral shadow, a heavy weight, or a light, eerie touch at the back of their necks. And why were they chosen?
These unforgettable characters that populate the book range from the repressed to the grotesque to the damned. Helen chooses to live a half-starved life, ascetic in her habits, emotionally distant. “’I sometimes think that one great emotion is never very far from all the other ones. Best to avoid them entirely, if possible.’”
Helen's only friends are Karel and his wife, Thea. Thea, a former social, highbrow raconteur, has withdrawn to her wheelchair in her house, isolated after a debilitating stroke. Karel is now self-pitying and depressed, his only interest the Hoffman document. Helen’s hag-like roommate, Albína Horáková, a shrewish centenarian, is intrusive and slovenly, wearing heavy fabrics stained with the accumulation of her sour meals, and always nosing around in Helen’s privacy.
And what of the enigma of Helen, so aloof and obscure? I wanted to know about Helen and Melmoth in equal measure. You won’t be disappointed. Perry is one of the most bold and visionary writers of our generation. And, like many ancient myths, the truth is embedded in its fable.
But is Melmoth real? Or is she us?
In The Essex Serpent, surely one of my favorite contemporary books of all time, Sarah Perry explored the chasm between faith and rationality, focusing on whether faith is a form of antique superstition. That book was enchanting and ultimately uplifting; this one decidedly is not. Although the theme is similar, Ms. Perry plunges the reader into a world of despair, from an Ottomon bureaucrat who eschews his moral obligation in World War I to a jealous child who betrays his friends in World War II to—in a prescient move—the demonization of the refugee.
The reader cannot help but sense the tendrils of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Daphne du Maurier or Henry James in the grim atmospheric settings and the intensified feeling of foreboding. The bulwark of the book is the meek Helen Franklin, an English translator residing in modern day Prague, who is the recipient of a disturbing document and who ultimately begins to believe she is in Melmoth’s crosshairs. We know she has somehow sinned but we don’t know how.
And so the book functions as an outstanding addition to Gothic literature that chafes against realism. Yet it also – and for me, more rewardingly – is a sort of morality tale. As one character states: “There is no Melmoth, there is nobody watching, there is only us. And if there is only us, we must do what Melmoth would do: we must be seen – bear witness to what must not be forgotten.” It makes each of us peer into our soul and ask ourselves: am I a fraud or imposter? Do I have the courage to bear witness? Or will I take Melmoth’s hand when she says, “Won’t you take my hand? I’m so lonely!”
Her friend is convinced that Melmoth is coming for him, and in spite of his fear, he also feels a kind of yearning for her. As Helen goes deeper into the research, she begins to feel the same ambivalence, fear and desire all tangled together. She feels Melmoth coming closer, sees her out of the corner of her eye, dressed in black and walking on torn and bleeding feet. She flees, but still aches to meet the woman who will hold out a hand and say "I've been so lonely. Won't you come with me?"
Does Melmoth truly exist? Hard to say. Either way, her appearance gives a choice of surrendering to guilt and giving up on life, or determining to find a way to make some kind of restitution.
I found it hard to engage emotionally with the book, but ultimately I embraced what I feel is its message, and in spite of (what should have been) a creeping sense of horror at the wanderer's slow approach, and the seeming inevitability of damnation, I think Perry got it right. The past cannot be changed, but perhaps the future can be.