Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 17, 2018

Melmoth (2018), by Sarah Perry

Melmoth was an impulse choice, on display at the library and I’d seen it online somewhere amongst the blogs I read.  Sarah Perry is the author of The Essex Serpent which won multiple awards, and I had hovered over that one at the library too, ultimately deciding that I probably wouldn’t like it.

What I had forgotten about Melmoth is that it has antecedents in 1001 Books You Must Read.  Wikipedia reminds me that Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by an Irish Protestant clergyman called Charles Robert Maturin is a classic Gothic horror story on a Faustian theme, and Honore de Balzac wrote a (rather liverish) follow-up story called Melmoth Reconciled (which I’ve summarised at Goodreads, if you are so inclined).

Well, Perry’s Melmoth is moralistic too, despite its blurb which claims the book to be:

a masterpiece of moral complexity, asking us profound questions about mercy, redemption, and how to make the best of our conflicted world.

First of all, the entire premise of the book is flawed.  Perry’s Melmoth is a woman condemned to walk the earth for centuries because she refused to be a witness to the resurrection of Christ.  Now, if you know the Jesus story at all (and most people surely do), you know that he was the poster boy for redemption, not Old Testament or Sisyphusian punishments for eternity.  And unlike the original Melmoth who knowingly bought into his Faustian pact for personal gain, this female Melmoth gained nothing for her ‘sin’.


The central character, Helen Franklin, has been mortifying the flesh for twenty years in suitably Gothic Prague. While not actually self-flagellating, she has been denying herself the pleasures of good coffee, scrumptious European cakes, sheets on the mattress in her dingy room, and yes, even the magic of music, and all because of her sin, which is (tiresomely) withheld until well into the book.  Her sole solace is a lukewarm friendship with Karel and Thea, and he *spoiler alert* turns out to be a cad because he deserts Thea in her hour of need.  (Men are so shabby about older women when they stop being sexy, aren’t they? Serves him right if Melmoth haunts him, eh?)

But before Karel bunks off to London he thoughtfully leaves Helen with all the docs she needs to learn about an assortment of sightings of Melmoth (Perry’s female one).  All of these are refusals to bear witness, and Perry being the exceptionally good writer that she is, the book manages to transcend its silliness with depictions of human wickedness that are extremely confronting.

But it’s not enough to redeem the book for me, I’m afraid.  And the ending, which has apparently reduced some at Goodreads to tears, looks like a cheap, manipulative trick to me…

Don’t miss the review at Theresa Smith Writes: it’s the best I’ve read.

Author: Sarah Perry
Title: Melmoth
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail, an imprint of Profile Books UK, 2018, 271 pages
ISBN: 9781788160667
Source: Kingston Library


  1. The aged woman is a true heroine in this community. It’s tiresome on the receiving end of cliches that keep the sexism and ageism flourishing. Unfortunately women too are offenders by repeating the same put downs towards themselves and each other. Will take your judgement on this one Lisa.


    • To be fair to the novel, the old woman Albina who Helen boards with turns out to have a bizarre kind of triumph in the end, and Thea finds herself coping better without the cad, but you are right, there are too many contemporary novelists who should know better. I also didn’t like the description of Thea as ‘a cripple’ … that’s not even a word we use any more, not for years and years, and with good reason because it’s an offensive label. If Sarah Perry doesn’t know any better, her editors should have.
      Lately I’ve been thinking more about the depiction of disabled people in the books I read because of various articles I’ve read, and I think that’s another aspect of real life that is often misrepresented.


  2. The more reviews I read about this, the further it moves down the tbr pile. It’s not looking good for it with two such reviews in the one week!


    • Where was the other one, anyone we know?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Over at Carpe Librum:
        I read the review last week but Tracey actually wrote it last month. I don’t get over to Blogger much and was having a catch up read.


        • I know what you mean, I hardly ever read Blogger blogs because they are so difficult to comment on, and you can’t subscribe to them in the same easy way that you can subscribe to WP blogs. But yes, she’s right, the references to jackdaws was a bit heavy-handed and possibly not as recognisably symbolic as they were meant to be if you haven’t read, for instance, the Susan Cooper Dark is Rising sequence. (Gosh, I loved that series!)


          • I haven’t read that series, so it might be lost on me! I do prefer WP, I’ve tried to subscribe to a few blogger blogs but I always get told that I’m already subscribed and then the next screen tells me that the blog I’m trying to subscribe to doesn’t support emails even though it offers it as an option. I now just make a special trip every now and then to have a read.


            • Exactly. It must be soul-destroying for the people who use it to blog with, to get so little feedback because of the frustrations we experience when we try to comment on Blogger blogs.
              Now, Susan Cooper… I am not sure of the age of your offspring, but for ages 10+ who don’t mind reading a bit of scary stuff, it is a brilliant series. I used to read Bk 1 (The Dark is Rising) to my senior classes and they loved it.


              • I’ll have to look it up Lisa. And mine are soon to be 13, 15 and 17.


  3. Hmmm. Not for me, I think….


  4. Another book I can safely skip. I read there are a million books published every year, that’s a lot of skipping. I’m glad I fell into WP, I keep a special bookmark for Brona’s Books but still don’t get over there often enough.


    • Me too, re Brona’s, which I feel bad about. It doesn’t come to me by email like all my WP feeds do, it goes into a separate folder in my laptop’s feed thingy and for some reason not into my desktop’s system at all, and because it doesn’t show up as unread mail, I forget to look at it.


  5. I’ve just finished reading this. Once I stop weeping at the time I wasted reading it, I’ll cobble together some sort of review.


  6. This book!! Ughh, it was so boring, even after reading my own review from your ping, I still struggled to recall it!


    • Ah, sorry, the ping is again from me updating my titles to include their dates.
      (A job which is taking twice as long as it should because I so often reread my review at the same time!)

      Liked by 1 person

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