Melmoth by Sarah Perry – review

“Even though it can only be legend – you almost think, don’t you, that one day you might look up and see her there?”

Melmoth. The woman in black who haunts both your waking hours and your fretful sleep. She is The Wanderer: the woman who denied the risen Christ and was henceforth damned for ever more, condemned to an endless life of isolation, trudging through the centuries on bloodied feet, looking for other despairing souls to share her infinite suffering. She is the footstep behind you in the street, the shadow on the wall, the figure seen but not seen from the corner of your eye….

Are you looking over your shoulder yet? If not then I promise you will be by the time you’ve finished this book! I picked it up on the back of finishing a collection of M R James’ Ghost Stories, wanting something to prolong the creepy atmosphere that I’d been relishing. The Essex Serpent has been an absolute favourite of mine since I read it a few years ago, so I already knew I loved Sarah Perry’s writing style; Melmoth is a similar mixture of unease, paranoia and an is-it-real-is-it-imagined quasi-supernatural entity at its core. Set in present-day Prague, it follows lonely, unassuming protagonist Helen Franklin, whose life is turned upside down when she is given a collection of documents by an academic friend, Karel. He is clearly greatly disturbed by the contents – and, judging by his haggard expression and anxious glances at the doorway, by something else as well. The testaments contained in these papers form the basis of a story that unfolds in ever increasing layers, taking the reader from Second World War Czechoslovakia, to England’s 16th century heresy trials, to late twentieth century Manilla and finally to Turkey in the 1920s. If this all sounds too scattered and fragmented to come together as a coherent novel, I can assure you I found the opposite to be true. The characters telling their stories all have one thing in common: they believe themselves to be stalked by Melmoth following a decision for which they feel an unassuageable guilt, even anguish.

It’s clear very early on that Helen too has experienced some kind of trauma in her past from which she hasn’t yet recovered. She denies herself all but the minimum amount of food she needs to survive, she scratches her wrists, refuses to indulge in anything that might give her any pleasure, such as music or colourful clothes, and she shuns anything that has the potential to become an affectionate relationship. In fact Karel appears to be about the only person in her life she could call a friend, and even then we sense a certain restraint on her part, a barrier that she is never prepared to let down completely. Whatever her story, the things she reads about the Melmoth legend affect her greatly. She sees the faces of the guilt-stricken storytellers appearing before her, along with another presence – something dark, shadowy and indistinct, which both frightens her and yet somehow attracts her to it. According to the myth, Melmoth’s ultimate aim is to entice the despairing into taking her hand and joining her on her endless journey; this novel is ultimately about who succumbs and who has the strength to resist. The big question is, what will Helen do?

The book is packed full of brilliant characters – not all likeable by any stretch of the imagination, but all compelling and very real. Helen is deliberately enigmatic to start with, but the author gradually reveals more and more about her character through incredibly subtle, skilful writing and in the end we feel we know her better than she knows herself, supressing as she does the parts of herself we suspect she loathes. Josef Hoffman, a boy who writes of his childhood in wartime Czechoslovakia, is both a sad and utterly repellent figure. The man known only as Nameless in his testimony is equally abhorrent, although frighteningly recognisable as an example of the thousands of people throughout history who have aided and abetted atrocities by hiding behind a desk and signing the papers that legitimise persecution in lieu of pulling the trigger themselves. It’s a real bugbear with me that I usually forget many of the finer details of books pretty much as soon as I’ve finished them, so I take it as a sign of how strong the characterisation is in Melmoth that every single actor Sarah Perry puts on her stage is still vivid and alive in my mind.

In any supernatural story it’s extremely hard to get the balance of fear just right, and Sarah Perry does an amazing job in this respect. At one end of the spectrum there’s the intangible but very real unease that sends a shiver down the spine, at times created by nothing more than a bird flying into a window or the ceiling mouldings of cherubs in a library that become grotesque figures “screaming, as if behind the vault their soft fat feet were being scorched with branding irons.” This eeriness runs through the very fabric of Prague itself; the bright, noisy trappings of modern life sit uneasily alongside the old city with its dark passageways and ominous statues, the crowded cafes and lively music failing to mask the malevolence stalking the streets just out of our sight. Then there’s Melmoth herself – how do you describe an entity like this without it becoming a cliched monster, in danger of being slightly laughable? Things are often at their most frightening when they’re unknown, and the author keeps Melmoth out of view for much of the book; she’s a shadow, a footstep or, when she does appear as a woman, her face is hidden. Only when her victims have reached the depths of despair does she reveal herself, and then her hideous appearance is put before us in all its glory.

But of course behind all this horror another idea is at play, namely that Melmoth is nothing more than the manifestation of our own guilty conscience and lack of hope that we can ever be forgiven for what we’ve done. We can only banish her when we come to terms with our past and allow ourselves to believe that we can atone for our sins by positive action. It’s an idea that’s quite common in a lot of supernatural stories – is the evil entity real or is it the protagonist going mad – but I think it works beautifully here, because the novel doesn’t really require a definitive answer. If you want to read it as an “imagine if this legendary creature was real” kind of story, or whether you prefer to interpret it as a psychological character study that explores what trauma, grief and guilt can do to a person, I think you’ll get just as much out of it either way. Equally, I think it’s possible to take it as some kind of mixture of the two. Ultimately though, it’s about revelling in the gothic atmosphere, feeling the chill of being observed by something unseen, and admiring the beautiful writing that makes the ordinary become sinister in unexpected ways.

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“The Widow’s Confession” by Sophia Tobin – review

It feels like ages since I posted a book review so I’m really pleased to be back with the second novel from Sophia Tobin whose debut, “The Silversmith’s Wife”, I very much enjoyed.  I’ve been particularly keen to read this one since it’s set in a part of Kent not far from where I live and with which I’m familiar having visited many times over the years; it’s not often you get to read a novel set in a place you know well and in which you can picture the buildings, streets, landmarks and landscapes exactly as they are in reality, and it gives the story a unique and personal flavour.  More than ever, I could imagine that the characters were truly there, walking in the places I’ve walked and seeing the things I’ve seen.  But of course, this is ultimately a gripping and deeply atmospheric tale whether you know the backdrop or not.

The quote on the front cover describes the novel as having “a dash of Wilkie Collins” and I’d definitely concur.  If you’re enticed by a nineteenth century setting, an enigmatic widow, priests with dark secrets and of course the appearance of a few dead bodies then you won’t be disappointed.  The titular widow is Delphine, who turns up in the seaside town of Broadstairs with her cousin Julia after ten years of travelling around Europe.  This lengthy trip is no indulgence, but rather one the pair was forced to make, fleeing their native USA after Delphine – we know not quite how – brought shame to her family through certain choices she made.  After being caught up in the bustle of a London overcrowded with people following the installation of the Great Exhibition, the women are hoping to find a quiet location in which to fade into obscurity, but it is not to be.  They soon become sucked into an unlikely social group, almost all of whom have come to the furthest reaches of Kent in an attempt to escape from their sorrows, hide from their past or to battle their emotional and spiritual demons.  Edmund Steele is escaping an aborted love affair and has come to stay with Theo Hallam, the local clergyman whose unexplained lapses into melancholy hint at some unexpressed inner torment.  Mr Benedict is an artist dragged down, it seems, by the mundanity of everyday life and whose desire for stimulation leads him to conduct himself in a questionable – potentially dangerous – way.  Miss Waring is a somewhat formidable middle-aged woman who’s come to Broadstairs to benefit from the sea air, but her niece Alba who has accompanied her is a strange, disquieting girl who veers between coquettish, manipulative and disarmingly childlike and divides the opinion of the party.  When the first body is found on the beach, the assumption is that a murderer is hiding somewhere within the coastal community.  When the second appears, suspicions begin to turn inwards and what trust there was within this group of outsiders starts to crumble.

There are so many things this novel does well.  I’ve already talked about the sense of place, which is so sharp it’d be almost as vivid to readers who haven’t been there as it is to me.  Then there’s the mystery of the murdered girls, which kept me guessing (and I guessed wrongly a few times) until the finale’s big reveal; I hadn’t worked out who the killer or killers were and I certainly wouldn’t have figured out the motive in a month of Sundays.  For me though, the triumph was the nuanced portrayal of a group of characters whose unlikely companionship, which has essentially been forced upon them by circumstance, is gradually pulled apart.  Under the stress of their proximity to the murders and their individual secrets and past tragedies, the party begins to splinter into factions united in mistrust of others.  Focussing on a tight group of people really allows the author to get under the skin of each and every one, and also creates a claustrophobic feel that’s shared by a growing number of the group as they long to be able to escape yet cannot quite extricate themselves.  She also takes great delight in playing with our perceptions of her creations, teasing us with clues as to their true character, which may or may not be red herrings.  Our opinion of almost everyone shifts back and forth as their stories are unwrapped layer by layer; beneath the gothic intrigue there’s a pertinent truth here, namely that all of us are guilty of making assumptions about others before we’re in full possession of the facts.  The question of who killed the girls found on the shore drives the story forward, but the mystery of who all these characters really are behind their various masks is almost more intriguing, and in many ways of more lasting significance once the tale comes to an end.

Sophia Tobin has cemented herself as one of those authors whose novels I’m pretty sure I’ll keep buying as long as she keeps writing them.  Easy to read yet with a satisfying amount of depth to them, for me they’re the epitome of reading entertainment.   I very much hope there won’t be as long a gap between this review and the next as there has been between many of my scribblings of late; there’s at least one more in the pipeline, but in the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts on this or indeed anything book-related!  Thank you for reading as ever.

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