Wednesday 17 July 2019

A stark depiction of human frailty, cruelty and cowardice

Fiction: Melmoth, Sarah Perry, Profile, hardback, 320 pages, €21.60

Myster: Sarah Perry has drawn on the uncanny before
Myster: Sarah Perry has drawn on the uncanny before
Melmoth

Joanne Hayden

Appropriately enough for a story so steeped in the gothic, Sarah Perry's third novel is set mainly in Prague. Following a short prologue, an omniscient narrative voice zooms in on the city's Charles Bridge and comes to focus on the main character, Helen Franklin: "Forty-two, neither short nor tall, her hair neither dark nor fair."

As a device, it's both literary and cinematic. It's also useful and, for the most part, Perry uses it well, playing with it and drawing the reader into her game. The voice, quasi-Victorian and sometimes overblown, is a way of injecting humour into a novel with an ultra-serious core, one that is fixated on guilt, moral culpability and the prevalence of barely-lived lives.

Helen Franklin - an Englishwoman resident in Prague - is guilt-ridden and barely living. Allowing herself no sensual pleasures, she sleeps without covers, eats little and avoids music. She has two friends and through one of them, Karel, a manuscript comes into her hands.

The manuscript consists of testimonies - some going back centuries - from people who have encountered Melmoth, a tall, silent woman in black who has been condemned to walk the earth for eternity. Melmoth is a witness, preying upon the guilty, trying to lure them into joining her.

This is not the first time Melmoth has appeared in fiction. In 1820, Melmoth the Wanderer, Charles Maturin's novel about a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for an extended life, was published.

Maturin was an Irish clergyman and writer and, in Melmoth, Perry references his book - which often features on Anglo-Irish literature courses - but her version of the mythic figure is unique.

Like its main narrative voice, her novel blends the modern and the historical, the temporal and the spiritual. It doesn't always work.

Sometimes her drive to create atmosphere is so relentless (lots of close-ups of statues and plaster babies screaming, lots of descriptions of sudden chills and footsteps in the distance) that the strangeness and claustrophobia of the world she is creating can wane.

There is so much heightened emotion, and so many rises and falls in suspense, that the effects of the big revelations are also diluted. Helen's self-abasement is so consistently described that as a character she begins to feel hollow. But though it suffers from repetition, the novel compensates in other ways.

Perry embraces each period she describes, using just the right amount of detail to bring the different eras to life. The testimonies counterbalance the arch omniscient voice with all its imperatives. ("Look! It is winter in Prague: night is rising in the mother of cities and over her thousand spires." "Look! It is evening now, and no snow falling.")

They are in effect potted histories of some of Melmoth's victims and range from the recollections of a dissenter targeted by agents of the Catholic Queen Mary I, to a German boy who betrayed a family to the Nazis during the occupation of Czechoslovakia.

Perry interweaves these accounts with the novel's contemporary strand, tracing the impact that the Melmoth stories have on Helen, who is unnerved anyway by the sudden disappearance of Karel.

Perry's fiction has drawn on the uncanny before. In her debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood, a man happens upon a group of strangers in a house in the woods; the strangers have been expecting him, they know his name. Her second novel, The Essex Serpent, is set in the 1890s and explores the boundaries between religion, science and superstition, partly through a young widow's fascination with the sea creature of the title.

Like her previous work, Melmoth is thematically driven; it is a novel of ideas. From the beginning, she plants questions in the reader's mind, obvious ones at first: why is Helen so guilty, what did she do and who is describing her world?

But as the story progresses, and as the testimonies mount, more complicated questions arise, such as: when guilt is warranted, what should we do with it? And it is a collective question because in Melmoth individual acts of betrayal and harm are intertwined with wider atrocities, and ultimately we are all implicated, we are all guilty.

It's fascinating, near unanswerable stuff, and the novel's overriding strength is its stark depiction of human frailty, cruelty and cowardice.

Perry shows how psychic and societal ­damage can converge and, while she does present some alternatives to guilt in the form of activism and empathy, she comes up with no real fix other than to become a witness - a rival to Melmoth - and look at the truth without fear.

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