Tag Archives: Melmoth

Melmoth by Sarah Perry: A proper piece of Gothic for our times

Cover imageIf 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?

Books to Look Out for in October 2018

Cover imageOctober’s the month in which the big literary guns are rolled out in the battle for our Christmas present lists although the publicity campaign for Sarah Perry’s Melmoth has already been in full swing for months. Helen Franklin is hiding from an unforgivable act she committed twenty years ago. Her sheltered life is threatened by the discovery of a manuscript telling a story in which the mythic figure of Melmoth frequently appears, complete with unblinking eyes and bleeding feet. The novel’s described by the publishers as ‘a profound, ambitiously realised work of fiction which asks fundamental questions about guilt, forgiveness, moral reckoning and how we come to terms with our actions in a conflicted world’ and having read it, I’d say they’re right. The Essex Serpent is a hard act to follow but Perry’s more than met expectations with this one.

I finally got around to reading Paraic O’Donnell’s The Maker of Swans earlier this year and enjoyed it very much. He’s a writer who knows how to spin a good yarn which raises hopes for The House on Vesper Sands. Set in a snowy London in 1893, its sounds like a second pleasing slice of Gothic involving a man whose one-time love is found stretched out in front of an altar, a seamstress with a message stitched into her skin and her employer who disappears into the night, all under the watchful eye of a society columnist keen for a real story.

Eoin McNamee’s The Vogue sounds as if it may also have a foot in Gothic territory or perhaps that’s just the slightly opaque blurb. In 1944, two teenagers silently dance in an aerodrome. She draws the outlines of their footwork in eyebrow pencil; he loses their bet. Decades later, a body is found. ‘Set against an eerie landscape, awash with secrets, The Vogue is a grimly poetic dance through the intertwined stories of a deeply religious community, an abandoned military base, and a long-shuttered children’s Care Home’ say the publishers promisingly.Cover image

Season Butler’s Cygnet sees a young girl, stranded on an island seemingly abandoned by her parents. Swan Island is home to an ageing separatist community who have turned their back on the mainland to create their own haven and have no wish to have their carefully constructed idyll shattered by an incomer, let alone a young one. ‘Cygnet is the story of a young woman battling against the thrashing waves of loneliness and depression, and how she learns to find hope, laughter and her own voice in a world that’s crumbling around her’ according to the publishers. This one could go either way but it’s an interesting premise.

Something that could also be said Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered which intertwines the stories of Willa Knox who is grappling with a host of domestic problems in 2016, and schoolteacher Thatcher Greenwood whose ambitions to teach Darwinism in 1871 are met with obdurate opposition in the town. ‘A testament to both the resilience and persistent myopia of the human condition, Unsheltered explores the foundations we build in life, spanning time and place to give us all a clearer look at those around us, and perhaps ourselves’ say the publishers, rather ambitiously comparing it with George Eliot’s work. I prefer Kingsolver’s earlier fiction to her more recent novels.

I’m much more confident about Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers, described by Hilary Mantel as ‘a small miracle’. The titular soldiers set up camp in a forest close to the Romanian frontline of the Russian Civil War in the winter of 1919. They fill a lull in the fighting, trying to forget the horrors they’ve seen, enjoying a brief freedom and the beauty of their surroundings. ‘Tightly focused and simply told, this is a story of friendship and the fragments of happiness that can illuminate the darkness of war’ say the publishers. The spare prose of Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter made a lasting impression on me when I read it five years ago

Cover image Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore sounds wacky enough to please even the most ardent fan. A portrait painter discovers a strange painting in the attic of a famous artist, opening a Pandora’s box in the process. To close it he must do all manner of things involving ‘a mysterious ringing bell, a two-foot-high physical manifestation of an Idea, a dapper businessman who lives across the valley, a precocious thirteen-year-old girl, a Nazi assassination attempt during World War II in Vienna, a pit in the woods behind the artist’s home, and an underworld haunted by Double Metaphors.  A tour de force of love and loneliness, war and art – as well as a loving homage to The Great GatsbyKilling Commendatore is a stunning work of imagination from one of our greatest writers’ say the publishers. Can’t wait.

That’s it for October’s new novels. As ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis should you be interested. Paperbacks soon…