Melmoth, by Sarah Perry

This is an odd book that took quite awhile to lure me in, but in the end I found very compelling and moving. It starts in modern-day Prague, where an English translator, Helen Franklin, is living a life of quiet austerity that goes beyond mere introversion — it becomes clear that she is haunted by guilt and trying to atone for something in her past. Into Helen’s tidy and ordered world collides an ancient tale of a restless spirit called Melmoth the Witness, the Wanderer, who might be real (what is real?) or an embodiment of guilt, or a symbol of those who bear witness to atrocities.

The story shifts around — from Helen’s present, to several different characters and locations in the past, including the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide, and eventually back into the hidden secret in Helen’s own past. Along the way, these gothic-horror-tinged narratives all play with the idea of “bearing witness.” It can be deadly: standing by and doing nothing when your words or actions might save someone. But sometimes, when tragedy is inevitable, bearing witness is the only thing you can do. The idea of the shadowy Melmoth as a witness becomes a metaphor for all the tragedies we bear witness to.

I’ve read several novels this summer that play on the idea of a character having a terrible, guilty secret in their past, and the problem with this trope is that often, when the secret is finally revealed, it’s anticlimactic — the reader has either already guessed it, or it wasn’t that big a deal. Not so here (or, in fact, in the other books I read this summer — the “dark secret” was uniformly dark in all of them). When we find out what (other than Melmoth) has been haunting Helen, her guilt and her need to punish herself make perfect sense. The only question is, when she finally meets both her past and the ghost that haunts her — what is she going to do now?

Weird, mystical, creepy, and thought-provoking.

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Filed under Fiction -- general, Fiction -- historical

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