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Melmoth, by Sarah Perry

30 November 2018

A metaphysical fable leaves Hugh Rayment-Pickard thinking

WHETHER you are already a fan of Sarah Perry’s fiction, or are just curious to see what all the fuss is about, her latest novel, Melmoth, will delight and disturb in equal measure.

The delight comes from Perry’s sumptuous writing, which evokes a tangible sense of place and mood wherever she takes her story. But this metaphysical fable tackles a disturbing human dilemma: how we endure or are broken by the world’s suffering and injustice. Toughest of all, Perry poses the question of our personal complicity, and how we should respond to our guilt and shame.

Perry tells the story through texts within text, shuttling the reader here and there in time between the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, 16th-century Essex, and a hospital in Manila in the 1990s.

At the centre of this patchwork narrative are the present-day streets of Prague, where Helen Franklin shoulders an unbearable memory that eventually works its way to the surface of the novel. In the mean time, she is haunted by a sinister being, Melmoth: “Her skin is dappled as though many shadows cross it and her unblinking eyes are spheres of smoky glass.”

Melmoth, we learn, was among the women who were first to witness the resurrection, but she was the only one to deny what she saw. Her punishment is to travel through time bearing witness to the world’s untold horrors and atrocities. Through a series of texts, Franklin follows Melmoth through history, just as Melmoth follows Franklin through the streets of Prague.

As in her earlier novel, The Essex Serpent, Perry is concerned with Time. For her, history is never a march, or sweep, or longue durée, but a series of concrete moments described with meticulous relish. The pearls falling from a necklace, the caraway seeds on a bread roll, the network of veins on Franklin’s eyelid — these details remind us all the time that history is always particular, always some place at some time.

Perry holds our attention to the last page, delivering a final sobering twist that leaves us thinking long after the book is finished.

The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is a co-founder of the charity IntoUniversity.

Sarah Perry
Serpent’s Tail £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

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