Publisher: Serpents Tail
Publication Date: 2nd October 2018
The tale of Melmoth was one best used by parents centuries ago to keep their children in line. Melmoth, the woman dressed in dark flowing clothes, cursed to wander the Earth until the Earth is no longer. Melmoth, who bears witness to lost, lonely, guilty souls, who bears witness to their sins. Her eyes upon them, holding out her hand and asking them to follow her….
But, is this story purely a myth? A dark fairytale? Something borne of folklore?
Or is Melmoth really coming?…..
It’s 2016 and translator Helen Franklin is living a simple, austere life in Prague. When one of her only friends, scholar Karel Prazan is left a manuscript by an old man named Hoffman after his sudden death in the city library, Helen’s life begins to change.
A leatherbound file of notes detailing accounts of sightings of the fabled Melmoth The Witness holds more fear than Helen is initially willing to believe. Why is Karel so suddenly and inexplicably afraid, looking over his shoulder, feeling eyes on him? How much of these Melmoth mysteries does Helen really believe and why does she choose to live a life of self imposed austerity, punishing herself and only allowing herself the most basic of commodities to live, to just merely exist. What has happened in her past to cause such self denial?
Set in the depths of winter, you can almost feel the damp chill settling into your bones as you read this book. The creeping sense of forboding is there almost from page one. I love the way that the appearance of Melmoth is always just hinted at, a dark shadow in the periphery of someone’s vision, a feeling of being watched, of hairs standing up on the backs of necks. Implied presence is always a firm favourite of mine with stories like this, when the object of fear is too blatant it loses its impact for me.
Initially inviting the reader in, like a witness themselves to the story as it plays out this book reminded me of the start of The Crimson Petal And The White. One such scene in the book is when Helen is back in her lodging room and cannot see Melmoth from where she is, however, you are invited as a reader to look out of the window and see Melmoth there for yourself. It makes my hairs on my neck stand up just thinking about it!
Even though this is a contemporary story set in 2016, the language and intonation made it feel as if I was reading a classic tale set in a period from the past. The information held within the manuscript is told in various forms. Letters, first hand accounts and stories dating back centuries so of course the language used was befitting of the time period in which the story or the letter was being written.
Part 2 of the story where we learn of Helen’s transgression and the reason for her self imposed life of deprivation is some of the most perfect writing I think I’ve ever read. Set around a dinner table in a restaurant, 4 women of startlingly differing temperaments and characters experience an opulently rich meal whilst divesting themselves of their long buried secrets. Probably the most bizarre gathering I’ve ever read about, such a brilliant scene to behold. The latter part where the women are at the opera is heartstoppingly chilling!
Character wise, I didn’t really find any of them particularly likeable but that’s fine. I almost revel in that. Albina Horikova, Helen’s landlady is one of the most cold, cruel characters. Scornful of Helen and her life of solitude with no pleasures. Derisive of the lack of food and wine and even small necessities like bedding and adornments in her lodging room. Mocking and sneering, she is vile, I loved her!
Melmoth is like no book I’ve ever read. The writing is perfect, like a long and twisty darkest of dark fairytales. The only slight grumble I have, and it is only slight, is that the start of Part 3 lost its way a little for me. I didn’t quite understand what was happening. But maybe that’s just me being a bit dense! This is no way detracted from my enjoyment of the book.
This book is so perfectly crafted that even now when I think about it I can feel the chill in my bones and the way it made me feel whilst reading it. (Crikey Amanda, dramatic much?!). It will be one of those books that stays with me and implants itself somewhere in my brain only to present itself years down the line and give me a little shiver….
I’ve not read The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry but have been told by the world and his wife that I must. And don’t worry people! I have it on my shelf ready and raring to go!
Melmoth is the epitome of a perfect Autumn/Winter read and I’m so glad I waited until Autumn to read it. So draw the curtains, light the candles, hunker down and immerse yourself in Melmoth’s world……you won’t regret it. Just stunning.
Thank you to Serpents Tail for my review copy.
See you all soon.
Bookish Chat xxx