The best word to describe Melmoth, the latest novel from Essex Serpent author Sarah Perry, is lush. This is a novel where every sentence has been wrapped in layer upon layer of velvet, in which every word is unctuous, in which every image is just on the verge of feeling overripe. It is a book that is always teetering right on the edge of being too much — but it never quite crosses over the line.
Melmoth is a gothic novel, and although it’s set in present-day Prague, it reads specifically like a Victorian gothic novel, as though it were written in a time before the consensus on beautiful sentences was that they were supposed to be restrained. Perry’s characters laugh like Victorian madmen — “Ha! Ha! Ha!” — and their faces are described with so much anatomical detail that you have to assume Perry believed that her readers would have a working knowledge of phrenology.
The main character here is Helen Franklin, an Englishwoman living a life of austerity in Prague. She seems to be punishing herself for some deep and terrible sin unknown to us: she sleeps on a bare mattress, drinks only weak and bitter tea, and earns her living translating power tool user manuals from German into English.
And Helen is being watched by someone, a figure draped in black and hiding in the shadows. Over the course of the novel, Helen becomes increasingly convinced that the figure watching her is the legendary Melmoth.
In reality, Melmoth was a variation of the Wandering Jew myth that was created for the 1820 gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer, but Perry has retrofitted a convincing Biblical backstory onto her version. Perry’s Melmoth is a woman who saw that Christ had risen and denied it, and, as a punishment, she is doomed to travel the earth, witnessing atrocities and seeking a companion for her loneliness.
“When she turns her eyes on you,” one character explains, “it’s as if she’s been watching all your life — as if she’s seen not only every action, but every thought, every shameful secret, every private cruelty … there, Helen, you shivered!”
As Helen becomes more and more afraid of Melmoth, her obsession with a mysterious manuscript she has intercepted grows. It’s full of historical testimonies about Melmoth hunting the guilty: Melmoth witnessing the Holocaust, trying to lure away a little boy who turned his Jewish neighbors over to the Nazis; Melmoth during the Turkish-Armenian genocide, haunting the man who signed the papers that sent the Armenian children away to camps.
What concerns both Helen and Melmoth most powerfully is the idea of bearing witness to something terrible. In this novel, to bear witness actively and with compassion can be a redemptive act, but to bear witness passively, as a bystander, is to become complicit in an atrocity. Helen’s terrible and mysterious sin, which is not revealed until the end of the book, involves moving from active witness to passive. It’s a transition for which she has never fully forgiven herself.
Despite the throbbing, lurid aesthetic of this book, Helen is a chilly character, restrained to the point of iciness. It’s the narrator who creates the sense of overpowering lushness, of just-on-the-edge-of-too-much-ness — against which Helen, with her pointedly Spartan aesthetic and her penitential lifestyle, feels so bracing as to be refreshing. You can imagine that Helen would look severely at the narrator as she goes off into a gothic reverie:
“If you could tell her now (step forward! Take her wrist, and whisper!) perhaps she’d pause, turn pale, and in confusion fix her eyes on yours,” the narrator moans.
“Come now, that is quite enough of that,” Helen would say.
But the narrator, who has no sense of either shame or restraint, would talk right on over Helen, painting ever more elaborate pictures in ever more velvety words.
And good for the narrator. Self-consciously restrained novels are a dime a dozen, but weirdo over-the-top quasi-Victorian gothic fantasies about sin are rarer birds. This is a lush book, so let yourself luxuriate in it.