For centuries, the mysterious dark-robed figure has roamed the globe, searching for those whose complicity and cowardice have fed into the rapids of history’s darkest waters—and now, in Sarah Perry’s breathtaking follow-up to The Essex Serpent, it is heading in our direction.
It has been years since Helen Franklin left England. In Prague, working as a translator, she has found a home of sorts—or, at least, refuge. That changes when her friend Karel discovers a mysterious letter in the library, a strange confession and a curious warning that speaks of Melmoth the Witness, a dark legend found in obscure fairy tales and antique village lore. As such superstition has it, Melmoth travels through the ages, dooming those she persuades to join her to a damnation of timeless, itinerant solitude. To Helen it all seems the stuff of unenlightened fantasy.
But, unaware, as she wanders the cobblestone streets Helen is being watched. And then Karel disappears. . . .
Potentially Sensitive Areas: Mild language; Grotesque imagery
Booklist starred (September 1, 2018 (Vol. 115, No. 1))
Like the Wandering Jew, Perry’s nightmarish Melmoth the Witness ranges the earth recording horrors wrought by humankind. She watches and tracks individuals (who feel hairs prick on their neck and search the shadows for visions) whose sins cannot be forgiven, upon whom she preys with flashes of magical realism, recalling the imagery in Perry’s The Essex Serpent (2017). The nonlinear time line of historical events and the nested stories involving wide-ranging and complex characters may sometimes make readers feel uneasy or even lost. But once we gain our sea legs, this stylized, postmodern work by a masterly writer compels us to see genocide, war, deportation, and even compassionate deadly crimes through new eyes that reflect the characters’ perspectives. Helen Franklin is a young British woman working as a translator in Prague, where she and her new friends, Karel and Thea, discover a shocking document describing the wanderings of the mythical Melmoth. Later, after reading the unforgettable horrors detailed in the document, Helen breaks down, seemingly unable to withstand the starkly upsetting images, thrumming inevitability of remembrance, and the guilt we all share in some way. This is a sobering, disturbing, yet powerful and moving book that cannot fail to impress. The stories-within-stories and the Jewish themes recall Dara Horn’s The World to Come (2006) and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013), although Melmoth presents different kinds of nightmares.
Kirkus Reviews starred (August 1, 2018)
Haunted by past misdeeds, a self-exiled English translator encounters the uncanny in snow-covered Prague. Helen Franklin doesn’t deserve joy, so she arranges her own “rituals of discomfort: the uncovered mattress, the unheated room, the bitter tea,” the modern-day equivalents of wearing a hair shirt. When one of her few friends, the scholar Karel Pražan, stops her on the street to share his discovery of a strange manuscript, Helen begins to suspect her past has caught up with her at last. The manuscript contains tales from many sources, and they all detail horrors in various degrees: a young Austrian boy who gets his neighbors sent to concentration camps during World War II, a 16th-century Protestant in Tudor England striving to retain her faith in the face of persecution, a 19th-century Turkish bureaucrat responsible for writing a memo used to justify the detention of Armenian families. In each of these tales lurks the spectral figure of Melmoth, a witness “cursed to wander the earth without home or respite, until Christ comes again.” But why does steady, practical Helen Franklin feel Melmoth’s “cold gaze passing at the nape of her neck”—and what misdeeds from her past have pushed her to the brink of exhaustion? While Helen’s friends—the sharp, wry Thea, a former barrister, the cranky landlord Albína, and the saintly Adaya—worry, the beseeching hand of Melmoth grows ever closer. In rich, lyrical prose, Perry (The Essex Serpent, 2017, etc.) weaves history and myth, human frailty and compassion, into an affecting gothic morality tale for 2018. Like David Mitchell and Sarah Waters, Perry is changing what a modern-day ghost story can look like, challenging her readers to confront the realities of worldwide suffering from which fiction is so often an escape. A chilling novel about confronting our complicity in past atrocities—and retaining the strength and moral courage to strive for the future.
About the Author
Sarah Perry was born in Essex in 1979, and was raised as a Strict Baptist. Having studied English at Anglia Ruskin University she worked as a civil servant before studying for an MA in Creative Writing and a PhD in Creative Writing and the Gothic at Royal Holloway, University of London. In 2004 she won the Spectator’s Shiva Naipaul Award for travel writing.
She currently lives in Norwich, where she is completing her third novel.
Her website is www.sarahperry.net/
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