Wednesday 19 December 2018

Melmoth, Sarah Perry

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Using Charles Maturin’s 1820 novel Melmoth the Wanderer as inspiration, Perry brings us a modern gothic that forces us to ponder guilt and responsibility. Transforming the wretched wanderer into a woman forced to walk the Earth with bleeding feet as punishment for denying the risen Christ, Perry adds a religious dynamic to the tale. Taking her cue from Maturin, stories are folded into stories as we witness people at their most desperate. Karel Pra┼żan in modern day Prague is haunted by the idea that Melmoth is watching, ever alert for the ripple of her black robes in the shadow. He tries to shake off the superstition, laughing about it with his wife Thea but repeated references to empty chairs left waiting for Melmotka and bloody footprints slowly fading blurs the line between fiction and reality.

Helen Franklin, friend of Karel’s, an unassuming woman hellbent on a self-imposed penitence for the actions of her youth reads through the evidence and testimonials and becomes entangled in the web of misery that surrounds it. Josef Hoffmann’s confession of his role in the Holocaust is the starting block, showing Perry isn’t likely to shy away from the atrocities of history. The juxtaposition of destruction on such a large scale compared to Karel’s betrayal of his recently disabled wife demonstrates that life’s horrors and soul destroying guilt come in many forms. It also lends a relatable humanity to the narrative as we see each character wrestle with their consciences, intermingled so that the reader is in an almost constant state of heightened emotion.

Each tale is heartwrenching but the constant hopping around in the narrative interrupts the flow and lessens the impact as you’re forced to reacquaint yourself with the different time periods and locations. Full of intriguing characters that scream out for more page time, this is a disorienting novel with moments of beautiful prose.

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