Melmoth by Sarah Perry: A review

This is a ghost story. Or, perhaps more properly, it's a story of the undead. Not vampires. No, this undead persona does not suck the life's blood of those still fully alive; she is merely an observer. She bears witness to all the cruelty and violence of which humanity is capable and, in her continued existence, we see the toll that such witness-bearing takes.

Melmoth is a character from a gothic masterpiece called Melmoth the Wanderer, written in 1820 by Charles Maturin. In that work, Melmoth was a man. Others have written tales since that featured the character but always as a man. Perry updated the myth, changing the central character to a woman and including various folklore and Christian images.

I loved Perry's last book, The Essex Serpent, and I came to this one expecting to love it, but I found that I didn't. At least not immediately. I found it hard to get into at first, I think, primarily because the central character, Helen Franklin, is a bit of a cipher at first. There's not much to distinguish her or to make us want to know more about her. She is, in fact, a rather lonely and pitiable character.

Helen is English, but when we meet her she is living in Prague where she is a translator of implement instruction manuals. She is described as small and insignificant with an air of sadness and even self-hatred about her. Only much later do we begin to understand the source of that sadness and self-hatred.

Helen has a friend (one of her few) named Karel and it is through him that she first learns the myth of Melmoth, or Melmotka, as she is known in Prague. Karel gives her a collection of texts that tell of a weary wraith-like figure in black who wanders the earth with bleeding feet as she bears witness to sorrow. Perry introduces us to these various texts.

They tell of Josef Hoffman who grew up in wartime Czechoslovakia and who first sees Melmotka as he is marched off to a concentration camp. There is also a letter from Sir David Ellerby written to his wife, Elizabeth, whom he tells of meeting a woman in an inn who had encountered Melmoth. We read the "Cairo Journals of Anna Marney," which tell of the life of a Turkish beggar who in his earlier life had been a cog in the bureaucratic machine that brought about the massacre of Armenians. These historical notes are compelling and it was with them that I really began to appreciate what Perry was doing.

We keep coming back to Helen's life and, finally, her great and original sin is revealed, involving a stint in Manila where she fell in love with a young Filipino trainee doctor and met a woman who had been attacked with acid by her ex-lover. I don't want to reveal any plot spoilers, so I won't say more.

In the end, I found myself greatly admiring Sarah Perry's work here. She builds her postmodern gothic piece by piece and manages to maintain throughout that atmospheric sense of something, some shadowy presence, just there beyond the limits of our vision. We know she is there, watching, witnessing all the scenes of horror that we have been a party to throughout our lives. But she views us with pity and sorrow. And with longing. She is so, so lonely.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



  1. You're on a roll reading new books. :-) Great review, Dorothy! So she is sad because she has seen the evil humanity is capable of? Just wondering...

    1. Yes. One cannot begin to imagine the sorrow that such witnessing would engender.

  2. If I see this book at the library, I will get it out!

    1. It's a recent publication so it should be making its way to the libraries soon.

  3. I loved The Essex Serpent too and as I think back it also started rather slowly. So now we know. Sarah Perry is a builder. Can't wait to read this one. Great review!

    1. Yes, that was true of The Essex Serpent as well, so perhaps you are right; that is her modus operandi.


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