By Sarah Perry
Custom House/William Morrow
The feeling you are not alone, a glimpse of a dark-robed figure just out of the corner of your eye, feelings of sorrow, loneliness and guilt -- Sarah Perry takes these elements and the fable of Melmoth the Wanderer to create a remarkably harrowing tale. And, just as her prior novel, The Essex Serpent, was about more than the possible sighting of a sea monster, so this novel is more than a ghost story.
Helen Franklin is a quiet, drab woman who has purposefully tried to not draw attention to herself or experience a moment of joy. A colleague, once calm himself, is distraught as he is drawn into a study of a creature just out of sight. Melmoth is not a name Helen has ever heard before, but it is one that will continue to haunt her once her colleague goes missing after giving her some of the historical documents he has been reading.
According to Perry's version of the legend, Melmoth was one of the women who witnessed empty tomb of Jesus but denied seeing him risen. So she is condemned to roam the earth alone, always watching, and seeking a salvation that doesn't exist in an increasingly wicked world.
The stories of people who claim to have been lured into Melmoth's orbit, interspersed with Helen's journey, are harrowing in that creepy, middle-of-the-night sense. Those who finally see Melmoth, after believing there is an unknown destiny to their journey, and who turn down the chance to spend eternity with her spend the rest of their lives trying to find her again. It's a curse that slowly begins to overtake Helen as well. Is there something following her? Or is that just a shadow?
Perry displays a grand ability to conjure up the atmosphere of possibly being followed. Early on, Helen gets ready for sleep in her spare, sparse little room:
Is she uneasy now? A little -- a little: the flesh on her forearms grows chill, the hairs there lift, there is a slight dropping sensation in the cavity of her chest, as if her heart has paused before a hasty beat. It is as if she feels a pair of eyes fixed on her, unblinking, calculating; she turns, and there is only the dressing gown on the hook, the satchel on the bed. Karel's disease is infectious, it seems: she recalls, with a quickening of the heart, herself as a child, as a teenager, certain that she was in some way marked out -- feeling, as the young so often do, that she could not possibly be as ordinary as she seemed. (There is something else, also, swiftly suppressed: the memory of a cold gaze passing at the nape of her neck, when she did what she ought not to have done.)
The documents in that satchel convey the stories of a wide range of characters. Some are innocent, some are evil, some are so lost they do not know the difference. The story of Josef Hoffman, who grew up with a father dismayed his son was denied his Austro-Hungarian empire birthright because of war, examines evil and self-worth in a way that shows how eternal these moral judgment calls remain. Josef's story is a complete one unto itself, and its reverberations echo not only across this novel, but across history and current events.
Perry also adds the layer of free will to the complexity of the novel when Helen and her friend Thea, who is the companion of her colleague who disappeared, realize how the people they are reading about react to the idea of Melmoth affects the rest of their lives. Remaining lonely or giving in to the temptation of thinking a creature has been looking out for you without you realizing it your entire life is the either/or choice Perry posits time and again for these characters.
Just as the story reaches a Grand Guginol climax of decadence and decay, Helen faces her deepest fears and feelings of guilt in facing down what others may have called a demon. And an unexpected episode of reaching out to others in a full-hearted expression of free will provides a strong counterpoint to the despair that other characters have felt or fought off.
Melmoth is a rich, deep novel tailor-made for reading while the trailing remnants of a harvest moon drift past a window.
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