If you’re a frequenter of my neck of the Twitter woods, I’d be surprised if you’d not come across Sarah Perry’s third novel well before it was published. Her publishers have been trailing it for months, ramping up an anticipation that was already well primed for many of us who enjoyed both her debut, After the Flood, and her much-lauded second novel, The Essex Serpent. Fans who are as wary of hype as I am can relax: Perry has outdone herself with this chilling slice of Gothic which, as with her previous novels, combines a rattling good yarn with a complex moral dimension.
Forty-two-year-old Helen Franklin has scratched a living in Prague for twenty years. She passes unnoticed, has few friends and dislikes her ancient landlady who scents a penitent. Not long before Christmas, she’s summoned by Karel, the partner of her friend Thea. Karel seems agitated. He’s been left a manuscript by an old man he’d befriended at the city library, a confessional memoir which lays bare the young Josef’s transgressions. Not long after he’s passed the first pages to Helen, eager to be rid of them, Karel disappears. Helen becomes entranced by both Josef’s story and Karel’s research with its many references to a woman swathed in black, reaching out a hand to those at their lowest ebb, desperate for a companion in her loneliness. This is Melmoth, known by a multitude of names throughout the world, condemned to witness the sins of humanity as a punishment for denying the resurrection of Jesus, seen with her own eyes. Helen becomes convinced that she’s being followed, turning her mind back to memories she has so carefully barricaded. As she buries herself in Karel’s research papers, full of stories of human weakness and depravity, she begins to see ghosts everywhere until the one she most dreads appears.
Perry’s novel is prefaced by a memorial to Charles Robert Maturin, author of Melmoth the Wanderer, the nineteenth-century Gothic novel from which her novel draws its inspiration. Like Maturin, Perry nests stories within stories throughout her book – from the young Josef’s betrayal of the Jewish family whose overtures of friendship he resents to the brothers, both civil servants, who coolly help administer the Armenian genocide. There’s a complex moral thread running through her narrative. Humans in their weakness seem doomed to transgress, either on the grand scale of perpetrating genocide or merely looking the other way but Melmoth is forced to witness it all and may come calling, reaching out her hand to those who resist redemption. All of this is couched in beautifully polished prose. Perry transports you to Prague with her gorgeous descriptions of this Gothic central European city which has seen so much conflict and suffering. It’s a superb novel – chilling, clever and immersive. I’m resisting that old clichéd description of an author at the height of her powers not least because after such an assured, original piece of work who knows what Perry will come up with next?