Jan/Feb 2019  •   Reviews & Interviews


Review by Ann Skea

Sarah Perry.
Serpents Tail. 2018. 288 pp.
ISBN 978 1 78816 066 7.

Helen Franklin: small, insignificant, having about her an air of sadness whose source you cannot guess at; self-punishment, self-hatred, carried out quietly and diligently and with a minimum of fuss?

Melmoth The Witness, Melmotte, Melmotica, Melmat: "she who is cursed to wander the earth without home or respite."... "she is always watching," her eyes are upon you in your guilt and transgression. "That's what she does. Looks at the hell we"ve made and goes walking though it," taking you with her until your feet, like hers, are bleeding.

Sarah Perry's Melmoth has all the richness, suspense and terror of a good gothic novel but it is more than that. Helen Franklin may be an unlikely heroine but it is though her that we learn of Melmoth, and it is Melmoth who haunts her and those others whose lives she enters, and whose dark presence make us, too, aware of the hells we walk through.

Helen has left England for mundane work as a translator of instruction manuals and advertising material in a wintery Prague which is full of tourists, post-Christmas music, colour and smells. She cares nothing for these pleasures and sees it only as "a stage set," "pleasant enough for an evening of self-deceit, but nothing more." An accidental meeting with Dr Karel Prazan in the café of the National Library leads to an uncharacteristic friendship with Karel and his vivacious, stroke-disabled wide, Thea. And it is Karel who gives Helen the document from which she first learns of Melmoth and begins to feel herself being watched and followed.

Karel, too, has been deeply disturbed by the contents of this manuscript and by others in a file which has been left to him by an old man he had seen working on them in the library and with whom he had struck up a brief acquaintance. Arriving at the library very early one morning, he finds the old man dead at his library desk and is given a letter: "My dear Dr Prazan" it begins "how deeply I regret that I must put this document in your hands, and so make you witness to what I have done," and ends "my pen is dry, the door is open, she is coming!."

Slowly, as we follow Helen through the next few weeks and read with her those documents we, too, begin to feel the presence of Melmoth and to discover her ever-present watchfulness, her knowledge of our darkest secrets, and her skillful manipulation of human frailties, national pride, hatreds and complacency.

But is Melmoth just a mythical creation? At one point in the book we are given Karel's list of evidence for the existence of Melmoth. She, it seems, was amongst the women present at Jesus's tomb when the stone was rolled away and who saw the risen Christ, but she denied it and so is cursed to wander the earth without home or respite until Christ comes again. Karel's list includes a number of things which do, in fact, exist: an opera by Janancek (1899); a story by Theodor Storm (1888); and, especially, a gothic novel—Melmoth The Wanderer—by Charles Maturin (1820), who is one of the people to whom Sarah Perry dedicates her own novel. To some extent, Sarah Perry follows the gothic style and structure of Maturin's book, adopting (very skillfully) several different voices to let others tell us of their own encounters with Melmoth.

First, there is Joseph Franklin, the old man who died in the library. His document is a confession of guilt related to wartime events in Prague and Helen, chillingly, stumbles across evidence of the result of his actions.

Secondly, there is a letter written by Sir David Ellerby to his wife in 1637. He tells of helping, out of Christian Duty, an old woman he found ill by the roadside, and he recounts the story she told him as she lay dying. Her meeting with Melmoth was the culmination of her trial as an unrepentant religious Dissenter "who kept John's Gospel in the common tongue" at the time of Queen Mary ("Bloody Mary"). Her terror of being burned to death for her religious beliefs, and Melmoth's crafty arguments, had caused her "great sin."

A third document, "The Cairo journal of Anna Marney 1931," tells of two brothers growing up as Turkish nationals in Cairo and of their signing of papers, as "humble bureaucrats" in a minor government department, which caused the suffering and deaths of Greek/Armenians with whom the Turks were at war. The confrontation between one of the brothers, "Nameless," and Melmoth is terrifying and harrowing, and it becomes a terrible (and timely) reminder to the reader of his father's words: "My son, beware the pride of nations."

Ultimately, there is Helen's story, the revelation of her own guilty secret and her own reason to be aware of Melmoth as an ever-present, dark shadow. Helen's is a story of a love affair with a young man in Manila, and of the unbearable pain of a dying woman. Perry weaves this story with colourful and gripping skill into ongoing events in Helen's life in Prague, and ends it with the resolution of her guilt.

But Perry and Melmoth are not quite finished with us: "Look! It is midnight on the Vltava. The banks are white with sleeping swans and ice that creeps from east to west." There, in the empty city, is a lonely solitary figure "gazing down into the river, with an eternal, an absolute solitude! Think of a black ship adrift in a windless calm—think of the last star burning in an empty sky! ...you know her, you have been waiting for her." How could she not be there when the ills of the world are still unresolved?


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