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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My favourite books of 2016

As the year draws to a close it’s time for a round-up of my best books of 2016.  In the interests of making sure my favourites get into the list (!) I’m taking the liberty of including books that were new in paperback this year rather than just hardback – I’m sure you’ll forgive me!  Choosing my favourites was one thing; putting them into an order of preference was quite another, but after immense internal struggle I’ve arrived at this, the final countdown.

  1. The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

I’m not sure I could describe this as an enjoyable read given the traumatic nature of the subject matter in places, but it’s certainly the book that’s stuck most resolutely in my mind over the past few months.  There are a few passages so grim that once read they can never be erased, but ultimately this is a tale of finding hope after horror.  Not everyone I know was a fan, but the author’s skill is undeniable.

  1. This must be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell

I’ve never yet read a Maggie O’Farrell novel that I didn’t like so this was pretty much a shoe-in for my top 5.  Her characters are so authentic that they almost aren’t even characters; they could be any one of us.  Love, loss, grief, jealousy….she nails every single feeling on the emotional spectrum with this novel, as she does every time.

  1. His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

This is hands down the cleverest book I’ve read this year.  It plays around with the concept of the unreliable narrator and takes it to another level, until we start to question not only who is “reliable” and who is not, but whether there is any such thing as absolute truth at all, or only our own perception and experience.  It’s unexpectedly moving too.

  1. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

What I loved most about this book was the way it took me back to my childhood almost as if the author had been there!  The setting of a community where neighbours know each other intimately and children wander around the streets from house to house without anyone batting an eyelid evoked a real feeling of nostalgia for me.  Yet there’s a darker side to this utopia, where people band together to victimise outsiders without bothering – or wanting – to learn their story.  Utterly brilliant.

  1. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

If you know me this number one will come as absolutely no surprise to you!  This is quite simply the book I’ve been banging on about to anyone who’ll listen (and even to people who aren’t particularly listening!) since the moment I read it.  It’s got everything – period setting, touches of gothic horror, love and romance, mystery and real emotional heft.  I loved every sentence and it’s not just in my top five for this year, but quite possible of all time.  That’s saying something.  If you haven’t read it yet there’s still time to rush out and buy yourself a copy so you’ve got something amazing to curl up with this Christmas.

I’d love to know if any of these would be in your top five too, and if not, what have I missed?!

This will be my last post on Girl, Reading until after Christmas now, so enjoy whatever festivities you have in store and I hope to see you back here very soon.

Merry Christmas!

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“The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry – review

It’s not at all unusual for me, on finishing a great book, to go around feverishly recommending it to as many people as will listen.  It is unusual for me to stick my neck out and declare that a book has become one of my all-time favourites.  The deliriously happy aftermath of “The Essex Serpent” has been one of those unusual times.  I finished it a few days ago and it’s still out on the coffee table; putting it away on the bookshelf right now would feel like severing a piece of the connection with this thing of absolute beauty.  I’ll do my best to give you a sense of just why this novel has captured my heart and my imagination so completely, but I already know my words are going to come up short.

So let’s start with the easy bit!  Following the death of her husband, Cora Seaborne decides to escape from London and heads to Essex with her companion Martha and son Francis.  This being 1893 there are certain mourning protocols a widow must observe – dress in black, appear suitably downcast – as Cora knows too well; but the truth is she feels almost no pain at the loss of her husband, who was at best neglectful and at worst abusive.  His death is in fact a blessing in many ways: Cora, an intelligent and self-sufficient woman, is at last free to discover what kind of new life she wants for herself.  On her arrival in the coastal village of Aldwinter she is delighted to hear tales of the mysterious Essex Serpent, an immense beast rumoured to live in the waters surrounding this otherwise peaceful community.  Cora is a huge fan of renowned fossil hunter Mary Anning, and immediately hopes that this quasi-mythical creature may actually be a living thing that resembles the enormous sea creatures of prehistoric times.  Few people, if any, share her enthusiasm; she walks into an atmosphere of fear and superstition fuelled by a series of unusual events that locals attribute to the presence of the monster.  A mutual friend introduces her to William Ransome, the parish vicar desperately trying to keep a lid on the rising hysteria and the two connect in an instant.  Both are on a personal quest to debunk the serpent myth – Will’s weapon is faith while Cora’s is science.  From there the story follows both the deepening mystery of the Essex Serpent and the developing relationship between these two characters that are coming at the world from polar opposite standpoints.

So now it gets a bit harder: how can I put my finger on exactly what it was that earned this book such a privileged place in my heart?  There’s no doubting the fact that the list of fabulous things about “The Essex Serpent” is a very long one.  Firstly, the characters: a rich and varied cross-section of humanity, not one of which strays into cliché or feels as if they’re there to make up the numbers.  Even the more peripheral inhabitants of Aldwinter who only make brief appearances are absolutely real, envisaged with the same care as the more prominent players.  Cora herself strides across the page, with her unconventional attire and resolutely non-conformist attitude to femininity, and yet she carries a vulnerability and uncertainty about her emotional place in the world that resonated deeply with me; how can you ever give yourself completely to another person when your greatest sense of security comes from within, and your default position is to want to be alone?  Cora’s relationships, both romantic and platonic, are complicated and their consistently blurred outlines leave them defying categorisation.  The candour and perspicacity with which the author probes the phenomenon of love is one of the novel’s greatest strengths.  Much as we would probably all feel more comfortable in a world where being in or out of love were two absolute and mutually exclusive states, one of the challenges of our existence is the realisation that feelings are so much less straightforward than that.  Populating the pages of this book are a man who steadfastly believes that he genuinely loves his wife whilst pursuing another woman, Cora herself who desires love even as she pushes others away, and friends whose love for each other may or may not include an element of sexual attraction.  And does sexual attraction ultimately matter when two like-minds and like-souls meet?  I loved the nuances with which Sarah Perry infused her story; we reach the end still unsure about the exact nature of the relationships between some of the characters, and I liked it that way.

So love is left hanging as an unfathomable mystery – but what of the Essex Serpent, the more obvious mystery that has managed to drag a whole village into a state of near-panic?  I think the author’s multi-layered, ambiguous exploration of the mythical (or is it?!) beast and the way it manifests itself in the hearts and minds of Aldwinter’s inhabitants is the stroke of genius here.  On the one hand there are some genuinely creepy passages that send a shiver of unease up the spine, as we see some unsettling phenomena occurring across the unforgiving waters of the estuary and among the increasingly frightened villagers.  Throughout the novel there are flashes of the gothic that Sarah Perry clearly relishes.  And yet there is much more to this than the quest to discover whether or not the monster is real; perhaps the more important question is, why do so many people believe in it?  By the end of the book what I took away more than anything else was that we all have a serpent lurking inside of us, one that is shaped by our own unique fears, insecurities and experiences.  For the residents of Aldwinter the monstrosity comes to reflect many states of mind, from the fear of being driven off life’s comfortable path by unexpected emotions, to the unrelenting weight of grief, the turmoil of adolescence and even simply the confused ramblings of a brain ravaged by disease.  Absolutely, I wanted to know the answer to the mystery in its most literal sense, but it’s the more metaphorical manifestations of the Essex Serpent that stay with you longest after the final page.

There is just so much packed into this book that it will utterly consume you, both while you’re reading it and afterwards.  I’m actually incredibly jealous of anyone who has yet to read this for the first time!  I hope more than anything that you’ll love it as much as I do; as always, I would love to hear your thoughts.  Happy reading!

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Cover of the week!

A very brief post this evening, but a celebratory one!  Book covers are a fundamental part of the reading experience for me; a bad one can mean you may never give that book the chance it perhaps deserves, and conversely a fabulous one will jump up and down, waving its arms in your face and leave you with no choice but to select that book over all the others waiting to be read.  There are some immensely talented people out there beavering away to bring us readers the best that book cover art has to offer, and what better way to show my appreciation than by featuring one such top notch cover on my blog?  By the way, the story lurking behind this artwork is phenomenal so far as well (thank goodness, because there’s nothing more disappointing than a novel that doesn’t fulfill the promise of its packaging), and I’m sure there will be a review here before too long – but in the meantime, stop for a few seconds and feast your eyes on my cover of the week, “The Essex Serpent”!

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If there are any book covers that have caught your eye recently, then do share them!