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Book Review: Melmoth

Sarah Perry

Melmoth was published in October of 2018.

I decided to stop reading this book halfway through for reasons I’ve discussed in my review. If you enjoyed this book, great, I’m so glad it worked for you! I will not be persuaded to finish it, however; my mind has been made up. 


For centuries, the mysterious dark-robed figure has roamed the globe, searching for those whose complicity and cowardice have fed into the rapids of history’s darkest waters—and now, in Sarah Perry’s breathtaking follow-up to The Essex Serpent, it is heading in our direction.

It has been years since Helen Franklin left England. In Prague, working as a translator, she has found a home of sorts—or, at least, refuge. That changes when her friend Karel discovers a mysterious letter in the library, a strange confession and a curious warning that speaks of Melmoth the Witness, a dark legend found in obscure fairy tales and antique village lore. As such superstition has it, Melmoth travels through the ages, dooming those she persuades to join her to a damnation of timeless, itinerant solitude. To Helen it all seems the stuff of unenlightened fantasy.

But, unaware, as Helen wanders the cobblestone streets, she is being watched. And then Karel disappears. . . .


Another miss for me, I’m afraid. Many of my gripes with Melmoth are similar to those I had with The Essex Serpent, which I reviewed back in March. Once again, author Sarah Perry sets up an intriguing story with dimensional characters, mystery, and indulgent descriptions, but all my interest waned and dissipated somewhere in the middle of the book. Like in The Essex Serpent, this book seems to be less about the thing in the title than it is about the characters themselves. Unlike in The Essex Serpent, however, the Melmoth figure feels like it was added just for the sake of incorporating mythology or the paranormal; its inclusion in the story felt more forced than fluid. The author has the makings of a spellbinding, character-driven work of fiction here, but this book’s downfall is right there in the title.

The synopsis hints at “a strange confession”, and at the time when I decided not to finish this book, Sarah Perry was elaborating on the confession. Karel’s acquaintance documented his (the acquaintance) role in betraying people within his Czechoslovakia neighborhood during the Nazi occupation, when he was just a child. Sarah Perry effectively made the child version of this acquaintance quite unlikable – every time the story switched to his point of view I felt angsty and uncomfortable. The grown-up version of this character is haunted by the Melmoth, who takes the form of a woman lurking in the shadows and/or showing up in nightmares. Melmoth clearly symbolizes guilt, and if her “character” was more fleshed out the story would have been more thrilling and hair-raising.

Helen Franklin and Karel’s partner Thea were my favorite parts about this book. Or at least their relationship was – by not reading the second half of the book I guess I will never find out if their relationship deepens; sadly they were still not enough to keep me reading. Ultimately, I went into the book hoping for heavily folkloric symbolism and details intertwined with “real” world situations and personal issues, but instead I’m walking away from another tale that couldn’t hold my interest past the halfway mark because of a directionless plot moving at a glacier-like pace.


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