After the immense success of Sarah Perry’s second novel, The Essex Serpent, much anticipation has surrounded her third, from her readers, naturally, but also from a publishing and bookselling industry avid for a writer who appears to have bridged the gaps down which it is feared many excellent books – and perhaps the entire genre of so-called literary fiction – vanish without trace. Talented, inventive and in possession of (this is not a technical term) a sort of antic and occasionally decadent enjoyment of writing, Perry produces work that is substantial but also light of touch, filled with ambiguity, doubt and moral seriousness, and at the same time pacy, droll, vivid.
I have been avoiding using the abstract noun “readability” because it is capable of offending both readers and writers. Perry’s books are indeed highly readable – they depend on suspense, on atmosphere and on the use of pastiche that is as much respectful as it is mildly ironised – but they also have something less amenable at their heart; a degree of implacability, of resistance to being too neatly captured.
Melmoth reprises a number of Perry’s favoured tropes: a central character in some form of flight, wrestling with a past as yet opaque to us; a weighing of individual conscience against communal responsibility; an attempt to set what is superstitious, spiritual and ephemeral against the scientific, the rational and the empirical. To do so, it conjures its namesake, Charles Maturin’s novel of 1820, published past the high watermark of Gothic fiction, and centred on the figure of a man whose life-extending pact with the devil has doomed him to wander the earth in search of someone to relieve him of his debt.
Perry’s Melmoth is quite different; her restless spirit is a woman, originally part of the group of women who discovered Christ’s empty tomb. Melmoth, or Melmotte, or Melmotka, according to where you first heard the subsequent folk tale, was the only witness to deny what she had seen; and her punishment, therefore, is an injunction to seek out the worst atrocities of humankind, and to make contact with those responsible for or complicit with them. “So she is always watching,” explains a schoolteacher to his puzzled charge, “always seeking out everything that’s most distressing and most wicked, in a world which is surpassingly wicked, and full of distress. In doing so she bears witness, where there is no witness, and hopes to achieve her salvation.”
But Melmoth’s enforced witnessing has itself become corrupted; as much as confronting sinners with their misdeeds, she appears to want them to relieve her own loneliness, to join her in an eternal walk of shame. To this end, Perry dresses her in rustling black rags, garnishes her with a smell of burning, and strategically places her in dark alleys filled with solemn jackdaws.
This, then, is Perry’s mise-en-scène; its execution takes place largely in contemporary Prague, albeit one whose picturesque Bohemian attributes – its spires and cobblestones, its piping bock, its drifting snow – obscure our sense of modernity. Again, she favours a collision of characters, rather than the settled grouping of, say, a nuclear family; and her chief protagonist, Helen Franklin, is a woman who limits her interactions with others, and with the sensual world, as much as possible. A gifted linguist, she confines herself to translating technical manuals; invited to dinner by her accidental friends, the hedonistic Karel and Thea, she sips water and picks at her food; at home, she lies on a bare mattress beneath a bare light bulb.
Helen is gripped by a need to atone – for what, precisely, remains unknown until late in the day, but it is serious enough to merit one of her confessors to declare, “What a very wicked thing you did.” She is joined, in the novel’s nested stories, by other transgressors: those who have enabled death during the Holocaust, or the Armenian genocide, or the burning of Protestants in the reign of Mary Tudor.
None of the incidences of persecution and cruelty described admit of ambivalence; and yet Perry’s purpose seems to be to complicate our ideas of repentance. For what has Helen’s self-imposed exile and mortification achieved? Nothing for those whom she has wronged, nor indeed catharsis for herself. Has her behaviour, then, been a form of self-indulgence, a withdrawal that merely separates her from the possibility of doing anything good in the world?
“When she turns her eyes on you it’s as if she’s been watching all your life,” Thea tells Helen of Melmoth, “– as if she’s seen not only every action, but every thought, every shameful secret, every private cruelty… there, Helen, you shivered! Don’t you worry, we’re only children telling tales by the fire.”
Telling tales, in this instance, suggests a way of imagining what simultaneously frightens and beguiles the teller and her audience; but also a way of containing what has been told, of placing it in the category of entertainment and make-believe. Melmoth, pleasurable though it is, asks the reader to consider the relationship between storytelling and morality; to examine our need for alibis; and to look more and more closely at what is hidden between its lines. At times, it can feel crowded, and stilted, its natural flow sacrificed for ideas; but that trade-off seems trivial in the light of the ideas that it considers, and Perry’s commitment to exploring how fiction can properly test them.
Serpent’s Tail, 288pp, £16.99