Book Reviews

Meet Judith Rodby, Ph.D., Professor Emerita of English from CSU, Chico. Judith leads our monthly book club and is a voracious reader who enjoys connecting with fellow book lovers. Judith led The National Reading Initiative for the National Writing Project and has facilitated book clubs for children, adolescents, and adults. Be sure to check back frequently to learn about her latest favorites, and browse the archive for even more!

 

This month, Judith reviews Melmoth by Sarah Perry

During a season of falling leaves and bare branches, this novel will have Mary Shelley whispering in your ear. “Melmoth” is a gothic mashup of history and politics, intertexuality and a legendary ghoul, a wandering ghost named, of course, Melmoth.  

Sarah Perry’s new novel is related, roughly, to “Melmoth the Wanderer” an 1820 Gothic novel by Irish writer Charles Maturin. In his version the protagonist has sold his soul to the devil in exchange for 150 extra years of life. Perry borrows this conceit as well as the structure of Maturin’s novel, which is composed of stories within stories. 

Perry’s character who leads us to Melmoth is Helen, and the city is Prague, “the mother of cities…with a thousand spires.” Helen is a translator who spends her days with a nearly Trappist commitment to silence in the green-lit library and her nights with an odd landlady sipping bitter green tea.  She is given a folio of papers by her friend Karel, a man in a violet cashmere sweater.

The documents gradually reveal Melmoth bearing witness to cruelty and violence. I was most horrified by the scenes in post-war Prague wherein the natives were sending the Germans to camps, the Germans who had themselves turned in their Jewish neighbors to be deported to these very same death traps.  Melmoth follows and taunts the Germans, her feet bleeding as she walks and turns into smoke. She also ghoulishly observes a Turkish beggar who enables the slaughter of  the Armenians.

The narrative comes back continually to Helen’s life and her transformations as she studies the texts given her by Karel, who finally has this to say about Melmoth: “There is no Melmoth, there is nobody watching, there is only us. And if there is only us, we must do what Melmoth would do: see what must be seen –bear witness to what must not be forgotten.”

Throughout this mixture of  horror and gentile atmospheres, the reader can hear and see the jackdaws, birds shrieking with eyes of stone.  It is Perry’s skill that brings the specter of Melmoth to haunt the novel,  and through her writing we, her readers, are witness to centuries of  “what must not be forgotten.”