Sarah Perry’s haunting novel, Melmoth, revolves around two ideas: loneliness and bearing witness. Throughout history, humans have done terrible things to each other. Many of them were never punished for their deeds. Their victims are left to recover as best they can, if they survive at all. But in the world that Perry created for her characters, there is one being who sees all: Melmoth the Wanderer. She is believed to be a woman who denied what she had see at Christ’s tomb and was cursed to seek out all those terrible things that people do to each other. In her loneliness, she may offer a way out to the tormenters or their victims, to escape with her to bear witness while wandering the earth with bare feet. Melmoth presents us with testimony from throughout history about what people did when they were given the choice to stay or flee.
Not only did Perry take inspiration from Melmoth the Wanderer, a nineteenth-century Gothic novel by Charles Maturin, she also adopted some of the structure and tone of those early, sensational novel. From the very first page, where we meet protagonist Helen Franklin in Prague, every moment is weighted with heightened emotion and foreshadowing. The narrator tells us that Helen is not remarkable until she first learned of Melmoth. After that moment, nothing in Helen’s circumscribed world is the same.
Through Helen, we get rapidly up to speed on the story of Melmoth. This wandering woman haunts people who feel guilty, whether or not a court would find them guilty of a crime. Helen, like many of the people she reads about who have encountered Melmoth through time, feels terribly guilty about a bad thing she did when she was a young adult. We don’t learn what that thing is until late in the book. By the time we do learn, I was more inclined to be sympathetic to Helen. I was not so sympathetic towards the other people whose secrets are revealed later in the book.
What fascinated me most about Melmoth was the question of bearing witness. On the one hand, a witness is important for justice. A witness can testify that a crime happened. Because Melmoth can be any where, she can see crimes against humanity that no one survived: the Armenian Genocide, the burning of Protestants under Queen Mary, the denunciation of a family of Jews during the German occupation of Prague. But when there is no possibility of justice later, what is a witness for? Does it comfort the suffering to know that they are not alone or dreaming? Or would they rather suffer in secret, so that no one will see their humiliation? Melmoth comes down on the side of comfort, for victims and criminals alike.
Melmoth is a dark, uncomfortable read. But it’s the kind of book I love for its ethical complexity. Even though characters do bad things, criminal things, there are sometimes extenuating circumstances or convoluted rationalizing. We as readers are witnesses, but also judges. Unlike Melmoth the Witness, we can’t help but think about how much guilt the characters should bear, whether or not they should be punished, and how. We have to decide whether Melmoth’s offer to wander the earth is a way to escape justice or just a different kind of punishment. Readers who also like to watch Justice’s scales tilt will find a lot to enjoy in Melmoth, especially if they also enjoy rich, Gothic prose.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 16 October 2018.