Review: Melmoth

This review contains spoilers.

Sarah Perry’s 2018 novel Melmoth is based on a novel from (coincidentally?) 1820: Charles Maturin’s Gothic classic Melmoth the Wanderer, which I have not read. I know, though, that it’s a collection of fictional accounts dealing with the titular Melmoth, a man who sells his soul to the devil for 150 years extra on this planet, and is reduced to wandering the world in search of someone miserable enough to take his place in this pact.

I love Gothic novels, mostly; they are very much My Thing, baggy and imperfect and overwritten as they often are, their excess concealing the unspeakable at the heart of existence. I enjoyed Melmoth, but I didn’t love it – it wasn’t the twisty, hypnotic yarn I was hoping for. Perry’s update begins in Prague, with a woman named Helen Franklin, a translator in self-imposed exile for some unknown sin in her past. An academic she knows slightly, Karel, bequeaths some documents to her on his death, detailing a number of tragic lives touched by a dark, mysterious figure who offers them a way out. And then her own past comes back to haunt her.

Why didn’t I love it? Well – I’m not sure why the interpolated texts are there when it’s Helen’s own story that feels the most urgent; the shadowy figure of Melmoth stalking through them feels kind of irrelevant by the end of the book. There’s a lack of impetus, of coherent vision, that stopped me being drawn in as I have been by, say, The Mysteries of Udolpho, or The Secret History, or Gormenghast.

I also wish that the racial dynamics of Helen’s past had been explored more. By which I mean: her Great Secret involves her Filipino boyfriend taking the blame for her mercy killing of an acid burn victim, also Filipino. The narrative is inclined to forgive her for this, but there’s no examination of how her white privilege complicates the situation, and how she benefits from it. It is mildly interesting that the book’s key section takes place in bright, vital Manila, in contrast to rainy, Gothic Prague: if we compare Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, in which Mrs de Winter recalls sinister doings in England, having fled them for southern Europe, whose bright white sunlight seems antithetical to such shadows, it’s evident that Perry’s reversing Gothic tradition here. And unlike many Gothic novels, this one ends in reasonably unambiguous happiness, or at least offers the promise of progress out of stagnation. So perhaps this is a text about becoming free; rejecting the trap of the past and of tradition. Perhaps.

This all sounds very Negative Nelly, I know, but I would stress that I did enjoy Melmoth; it made for a cosy afternoon’s reading. But a few months down the line, I can’t find a huge amount to say about it. Make of that what you will.

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