Book review: Melmoth, by Sarah Perry

This is a very good, very enjoyable, very moving and very subtle novel, although whether or not it will stand the test of ages and become a classic is not, really, for me to judge. In part this is because it is tautly tethered to another novel '“ Melmoth The Wanderer by Charles Maturin '“ and many of its virtues lie in the sly subversion of its anterior text. It is, in some way, a jeu d'esprit, with no jeu and little esprit: this I mean as a mark of praise.

Sarah Perry PIC: Julian Simmonds/REX/Shutterstock

In Perry’s iteration of the Melmoth story (which is basically that of Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, based on the fool who taunted Christ, who was given the name of a wicked king and condemned to walk the world until Judgment Day) there are significant deviations. First and foremost, the preternatural creature is not a man, but a woman. Her name shifts and slips just as her appearance does, and jackdaws and shadows are a sign of her coming. Peasants put out an empty chair to give her rest on her way, and to prevent her from coming too close.

In Perry’s reframing of the myth the wretched creature is a woman who was at the Resurrection and denied it. A neat conceit indeed, since Matthew claims it is “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary”, Mark has “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome”, John just has “Mary Magdalene” and Luke mentions “Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them”. As punishment for denying she witnessed the Resurrection, she is made to be the witness of all of humanity’s awfulness.

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As with Maturin’s original novel, this is a series of nested stories. In Prague, a young woman, Helen, who is pallid and poor and precious, has slightly befriended an academic. He is somewhat awry when a not-exactly-friend has died in their state library with its blank-faced cherubs. He confides in her about the papers that the deceased left for him about the myth of “Melmoth”, a creature who will shudder out of darkness, her feet scarred with walking the world, and plead for a companion to her loneliness.

In one of the eerie coincidences that literary reviewers often find, the book has an epigraph from Silouan the Athonite, quoted from Gillian Rose’s memoir, which also appears in Gordon Darroch’s elegiac book, which I reviewed a fortnight ago. It is: “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” Helen is in despair, and we learn early on that she is not exactly hiding, but certainly putting herself through some kind of penance. Whether that penance is sufficient is the novel’s main engine; whether the other characters ought to be visited by Melmoth is another question entirely.

The book manages – just – to keep Melmoth an enigma; a psychological quirk or a preternatural presence. Unlike the original Melmoth, who laughed at suffering and was frustrated with his inability to cause people to sin, this version is a perpetual witness to the crimes of others. As Helen parses the various accounts compiled about Melmoth, she encounters complicity with crimes about Bloody Mary’s repression of Protestants, Germans living in Czechoslovakia under occupation, and deeds done in the Philippines. There is a beautifully done set-piece scene where the various characters – Helen, her friend’s ill wife, her gloriously ghastly landlady and an enigmatic nurse – begin to reveal what they have done wrong in their lives. There are also strange motifs and unexplained chimes which bind together the whole book. It is an ensemble piece, but one that works.

The connective tissue is Perry’s own prose. Her sentences are interruptive; they never quite end the way you expect them to do. There is an intrusive “I” in a book which is usually in the third person, and the pay-off is worth the secrecy. It also places the reader in a remarkably uncomfortable position. I was reminded of Koji Suzuki’s Ring, which was adapted into an acclaimed Japanese film: Perry’s work ought to be given similarly sensitive treatment. It is a book fundamentally about redemption and it takes redemption seriously – in that it comes with a price – and manages to undo Maturin’s gloating with a sense of genuine human connection. It also makes the reader face the fact that there are things in the world from which we might wish to shield our eyes. The refrain – “Look” – becomes more and more important, and if the maybe-a-ghost, really-a-ghost teaches us anything, it is that one word. It is necessary to keep your eyes open like a mad saint rather than closed like a contented Buddha.

Perry is an interesting novelist. It would have been easy to write The Essex Serpent Returns as a sequel to her second book instead. Her evocation of Prague is brilliantly brittle and as oddly aloof as her heroine. Reading it, I wished that the film-maker Jan Svankmajer was not 84 and could bring this book into a different genre. Perry takes belief seriously, and takes myth seriously. She does so in a prose which tilts as much as it lilts. By the way, you won’t expect the ending. And don’t leave an empty chair outside.

Book review: Melmoth, by Sarah Perry, Serpent’s Tail, £16.99