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Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Melmoth by Sarah Perry

Custom House, 288 pages, $27.99 (2018)

Occasionally a book will strike me hard. It will sound like a choral work building to a thunderous denouement with a single sustained dying note. “Melmoth” is like that.

Melmoth, Melmotte, Melmotka and other names are what Sarah Perry gives to her myth of “The Witness.” Perry gives you the myth story in many forms, then she spins a contemporary story set in Prague around the new coming of Melmoth. Or maybe not. Maybe Melmoth is not coming. Maybe Melmoth is the product of a vivid imagination and the colluding of similar-sounding tales. It’s certainly a fascinating trip down the road created by Perry’s vivid imagination.

Poor Helen Franklin, an Englishwoman set adrift and barely subsisting in Prague. By her sins, you will know her name. But we do not know Helen’s sin, only that she is suffering and paying penitence because of something in her past. She translates instruction manuals from German. She has a hard, thin mattress. She does not indulge in the wonder and passion of eating, instead merely mouthing the bare amount to keep her thin body alive. She has only two friends, after twenty years in Prague.

Karel and Thea are an odd couple. Karel is an academic and Thea is a vibrant ex-lawyer who has a wasting disease. They enfold Helen, although goodness knows what her attraction is to them. They are not so much interior characters as exterior stage hands who pull the strings that move the play along.

There are several stories tucked into “Melmoth,” all having to do with Melmoth the Witness. Melmoth, the myth goes, appears when someone has transgressed, someone who needs atonement. Melmoth herself eternally seeks atonement for her wrong, but there is no redemption for her. She seeks a companion to share her lonely wandering of the earth.

Sarah Perry knows how to create a foreboding atmosphere, as she proved in “The Essex Serpent.” It is the — to some readers — delicious anticipation of the horror, the horror that turns the pages ever faster. Perry breathes Gothic fog, drips Gothic nightmares, tangles Gothic threads so very well. Shiver. But Perry initially creates all this without bringing Melmoth into focus; she exists as a shadow, a dream, a fevered vision. At the foundation, the horrors come from actual human failings. And each perpetrator knows that someone is watching, that someone is bearing witness. Melmoth.

Perry must of course eventually reveal what Helen’s sin was. The author’s build-up is tense and Victorian; there’s eccentrically implemented decorum and swooning. Then will Melmoth reveal herself? What kind of a book is “Melmoth” anyway?

I can’t say that “Melmoth” is a crime novel, although there are crimes against humanity and tales of people victimizing people, and there even is a murder, but the book defies pigeonholing into any crime category, even for me. So, I say “enjoy” it as a chilling tale by a good writer.

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