Melmoth the Witness is a terrifying and yet moving creation who repels and attracts our sympathies simultaneously. The novel explores some of humanity’s darkest actions, asks us to consider our deepest secrets and conveys the importance of bearing witness to unspeakable events. At the same time, it's also a novel of redemption, of the possibility of forgiveness, hope and reconciliation, and the healing power of love.
I could only read Melmoth in daylight. A beguiling, atmospheric slice of gothic fiction, not for the faint-hearted.
Even if it does not inspire chills, Melmoth is filled with thought-provoking ideas on historical guilt and personal responsibility, as well as a depth of learning. It is a bleaker novel than Perry’s bestselling second novel, The Essex Serpent (2016), though the message at its heart is an uplifting one; even if redemption for wrongdoing cannot always be achieved, there is power in bearing witness to suffering and in resisting against total, black despair.
This is a very good, very enjoyable, very moving and very subtle novel, although whether or not it will stand the test of ages and become a classic is not, really, for me to judge... It is, in some way, a jeu d’esprit, with no jeu and little esprit: this I mean as a mark of praise... The book manages – just – to keep Melmoth an enigma; a psychological quirk or a preternatural presence... The connective tissue is Perry’s own prose. Her sentences are interruptive; they never quite end the way you expect them to do. There is an intrusive “I” in a book which is usually in the third person, and the pay-off is worth the secrecy... Perry is an interesting novelist... Her evocation of Prague is brilliantly brittle and as oddly aloof as her heroine. Perry takes belief seriously, and takes myth seriously. She does so in a prose which tilts as much as it lilts. By the way, you won’t expect the ending. And don’t leave an empty chair outside.
Perry produces work that is substantial but also light of touch, filled with ambiguity, doubt and moral seriousness, and at the same time pacy, droll, vivid... Perry’s books are indeed highly readable – they depend on suspense, on atmosphere and on the use of pastiche that is as much respectful as it is mildly ironised – but they also have something less amenable at their heart; a degree of implacability, of resistance to being too neatly captured... Melmoth, pleasurable though it is, asks the reader to consider the relationship between storytelling and morality; to examine our need for alibis; and to look more and more closely at what is hidden between its lines. At times, it can feel crowded, and stilted, its natural flow sacrificed for ideas; but that trade-off seems trivial in the light of the ideas that it considers, and Perry’s commitment to exploring how fiction can properly test them.
Herein lies Melmoth’s truth. Despite appearances, it’s not a novel about the supernatural; the real monsters in Perry’s tale are ordinary humans – a bureaucrat just doing his job; a young woman too scared to tell the truth; a boy besieged with anger and envy – human cruelty proves scarier than any spectre.
a novel that manages that vanishingly rare feat – being at once hugely readable and profoundly important. I’ve read Melmoth twice now and can’t remember a book that has managed to condense so much into so few pages, that has summoned such atmosphere, so many vistas and voices. The reader, who is repeatedly addressed over the course of the novel, is left with the feeling that, more than anything, Melmoth is a good book, one that, for all its uncanny shudders, comes from a place of decency and good faith, a beacon against the darkest times. Perry’s masterly piece of postmodern gothic is one of the great literary achievements of our young century and deserves all the prizes and praise that will be heaped upon it.
The follow-up to that immensely successful project, Melmoth chooses not to flinch away in such a fashion but rather rushes, full tilt and without apology, towards the uncanny... the conceit is neat, stylish and well executed... This bold, ambitious piece of work is a serious contribution to contemporary gothic... Occasionally it overreaches; to link the Holocaust and the detention of asylum seekers in Britain seems oddly tasteless in this context. There are also signs of haste in its composition, including many overdone similes: winter air is as ‘clean and bright as polished glass’, bread is ‘plaited like a schoolgirl’s hair’ and a ceiling fan is said to stir the air ‘as a spoon stirs soup’. In spite of such distracting infelicities, however, and the persistent sense that Melmoth remains at least a couple of drafts away from feeling entirely satisfying, there are many effectively spooky moments, times when something seems to shift at the corner of one’s eye or a dark shape seems to flutter at the edges of the room.
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.
The author has assembled the ingredients of two different kinds of novel and just failed to meld them into a blended whole... But Sarah Perry is the real deal, an accomplished and often beautiful writer, and this book, like her first two, is full of power and makes an unforgettable impact.
Arguably the most eagerly awaited novel of the year, Sarah Perry’s supremely assured follow-up to The Essex Serpent is a singular creature... It’s quite a trick to have produced a playful, bona fide page-turner that also looks man’s inhumanity to man in the face — yet it’s one Perry has pulled off with aplomb.
The narrative voice is omniscient, but with none of The Essex Serpent’s wisdom or lightness of touch. Instead, we are constantly reminded to “look”, which is in keeping with the witness theme, but also overdone and clumsy, like the writing...What’s really scary here is witnessing such a talented writer produce such an amateur book.
While there are flashes of brilliance, her tales-within-tales end up feeling an overly fussy way to explore her themes of historical bloodshed and liberal guilt... Even as you applaud Perry for using the goodwill she’s banked with fans of The Essex Serpent to try something more challenging, it’s hard not to feel that this time she’s written a novel to admire, not cherish.
The anticipation was always going to be sky-high for Sarah Perry's third novel, the follow-up to The Essex Serpent, which was Waterstones Book of the Year in 2016, won Fiction and Overall Book of the Year at The British Book Awards 2017, and has sold over 500,000 copies in all formats. In contemporary Prague-although Perry's prose gives a sense of timelessness-we meet 42-year-old Helen Franklin, who, 20 years ago, did something she cannot forgive herself for. So she now denies herself every pleasure as a form of penance. One day, a strange manuscript comes into her possession, filled with testimonies from people who lived through the darkest chapters of human history, most of which have now been forgotten. Each account records a sighting of a tall, silent woman in black with bleeding feet: Melmoth. Everyone who glimpses Melmoth must make a choice: to live with what they have done, or be led into the darkness. As Helen reads, she feels that she too is being watched-a sensation I think readers of Melmoth will share, as Perry has crafted an atmospheric, gothic tale with the requisite bumps and shocks, but one that also asks profound and powerful questions about morality...