Melmoth the witness is the one that mothers warn their naughty children about. She is a grim myth, cursed and feared. She is 'watching, always seeking out everything that's most distressing and most wicked, in a world which is surpassingly wicked, and full of distress'.
Sarah Perry's foreboding novel begins in present-day Prague, where Helen Franklin, an English woman in her early 40s, is living a life of self-imposed exile. She spends her time translating German manuals to English. Helen's scholar friend, Karel Prazan, tells her about a pile of documents that were left to him by an older man he met at a library. Though at first she doubts the veracity of the accounts that talk about a watchful, dark being, Helen is soon gripped by an unexplainable fear that makes her wonder: 'Do you think you can long for something that scares you half to death?'
The legend of Melmoth has appeared earlier in the Gothic masterpiece, Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin, and the novella, Melmoth Reconciled, published soon after by Balzac. Maturin's protagonist, John Melmoth, trades his soul to the devil so he can live for 150 years more, and then roams the world miserably, looking for someone who can take his place in this devious pact. Perry's Melmoth, however, is a woman with bleeding feet, clad in black robes, 'cursed to wander the earth without home or respite'.
Melmoth, or Melmotka as she is called in Prague, thrives on guilt, witnesses crimes and calls out to humans harbouring dark secrets. Those who hear her call have the choice of leaving with her (because who else would accept them if they knew of their dark deeds) or rejecting her hand and hoping that their sins may be forgiven one day. The mythical creature is given an added Biblical twist as well. She is one of the women who sees the empty tomb after the resurrection of Christ but denies it, thus being doomed to roam the earth for 2,000 years.
The novel unfolds through notes, diary entries and historical testimonials alluding to Melmoth. This is in line with Maturin's book, which also executes the plot through a series of nested stories. Perhaps the expectation of a big reveal when each new character is introduced takes away the impact of the suspense building up in the novel. It also makes us quite impatient to know what Helen is burdened with, which is disclosed only at the end of the book.
Helen is soon gripped by an unexplainable fear that makes her wonder: 'Do you think you can long for something that scares you half to death?'
However, the gorgeously unsettling prose makes up for this. It transports us to hospital rooms, 17th century England, war-ravaged Czechoslovakia, Germany in the 1940s and Manila in the late 20th century. It shows us Ottoman bureaucrats who wave the green flag for the Armenian genocide and Nazi supporters who take pride in their supremacy and lineage.
Atmospheric and gothic
It is no secret that Perry is fascinated by gothic tones and fabled creatures. Her previous novel, The Essex Serpent, is the story of a widow who is bent upon discovering a winged beast believed to lurk in the marshes. It was set in the Victorian era in an Essex village and follows the seasons changing in tune with the turmoil that erupts in the minds of the characters. The book was a phenomenal success and established Perry's place as one of today's best genre novelists.
While the feared sea monster remains in the background for the most part of her previous novel, the tormented, ghostly Melmoth has a more dominating role in this book. Melmoth is laden with olden story-telling techniques that create a menacing atmosphere. It is only when a modern-day device, such as a phone, is mentioned, that the reader suddenly remembers that Melmoth is, in fact, set in the 21st century.
The real villain in this modern gothic novel is not the eponymous Melmoth, but humans who prove that they are capable of the most despicable cruelties
Like Helen, the reader often craves for Melmoth to make an appearance. The lurid prose, wrapped in despair and stringed with hopes of redemption, gives an eerie, melancholic tone to the novel. Jackdaws caw loudly behind windows, curtains sway to take on unsettling shapes in the minds of the onlooker, feathers shiver and shadows lurk in the darkness. As the novel progresses, one begins to speculate whether Melmoth may be bigger than a mere myth.
The real villain in this modern gothic novel is not the eponymous Melmoth, but humans who prove that they are capable of the most despicable cruelties, often for an unjustified cause—like the boy who betrays his friend's family because of his envy for their radio. Melmoth, 'materialising first as smoke and liquid, with a smell of lilies and decay' is so well-crafted that it is a wonder that her origins are a figment of Perry's imagination and not the reimagining of a prominent folklore figure. While Melmoth is not as luminous as The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry succeeds yet again in creating a disquiet that leaves a lasting, haunting impression on the reader.