Sarah Perry’s latest novel, Melmoth, is a dark piece of historical fiction, layered and intricate, weaving myth with morals across the centuries. Stories sit in stories in this ambitious and haunting tale, one where each and every character that we meet must either live with what they have done, or to be lead into the void.
Melmoth is introduced as a figure, a story, a myth: a woman who was damned for denying the resurrection of Jesus and now wanders through the ages. Alone, she seeks out those who are also alone, to bear witness, provide solace, and take them away with her. By tempting the lonely with company she collects those who might also be damned. We see the widowed farmer who always sets out an empty spare seat for Melmoth, lest she pass by; the Melmoth academic who spurns his wife and is driven mad by her figure in the corner, watching as he works.
And here I diverged from the book. Quit. Partly because I was not enjoying it, which was a shock having loved Perry’s The Essex Serpent so much. I found the characters either dull or unlikeable to no greater cause, trailed along on the promise of revelation of a past mystery more than development, or empathy. Trusting the author, I kept going until I was about a third through the book.
But partly also because Melmoth had begun to haunt me too. She was in my dreams and turned them into nightmares; she was standing in my room as I lay awake after them. Prompted by the dark figures in corners, shadows in the night, I started to reflect on this very nature of aloneness, the impossibility of actual full contact, the unknowability of self: there is no fathomable way to share yourself and thoughts fully, so really Melmoth could come for any and all of us.
So uninterrupted sleep and less doom-laden philosophising, I quit the book.
I don’t like to leave books incomplete, and wouldn’t have written a review if my own nightmares did not add another layer to the haunting figure of Melmoth. Perhaps this description Melmoth tempts you, or perhaps warns. I am disappointed I did not finish, but happier.