“Melmoth” reels you in, using the same trick of all the best ghost stories: Is there really a ghost before you? Or do you see the projection of your own secret sins and desires?
Here are two descriptions of the moon, from Sarah Perry’s new novel, “Melmoth”:
“Overhead the low clouds split, and the upturned bowl of a silver moon pours milk out on the river.” And: “The moon freshly polished: an opal on a bit of velvet.”
To speak of Perry’s novel, inspired by a 19th-century Irish story, “Melmoth the Wanderer,” means to reckon first with its language — thick, painterly, sometimes unwieldy. Every time I think of that the first image, I get a small rush from the transubstantiation of moonlight into milk. Every time I think of the second, I recoil. How forced it feels in comparison, how kitschy. But if there were ever a genre that could comfortably embody these qualities, that could be so unapologetically lush and overwrought, it is the Gothic novel — which is “Melmoth” to its core, from its filigreed sentences to its twisty, supernatural plot.
Did your heart sink at “supernatural”? Is the “supernatural” decidedly not for you? Trust that no one would be more stalwartly at your side than this novel’s protagonist. Helen Franklin is 42, and as stolid as they come. An Englishwoman living in Prague, she works as a translator — not of novels but of operating instructions for power tools. Determinedly drab, she is allergic to any form of artifice or titivation. We meet her trudging through a snowdrift, “her neat coat belted, as colorless as she is, nine years worn.”
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It becomes clear that there is something extreme in her fastidiousness. She sleeps on an uncovered mattress, allows herself no butter or sugar, drinks only bitter tea. She resists “pleasure and companionship as assiduously as a Trappist avoids conversation.”
Locked in these inscrutable rituals of private penance, she somehow makes a friend — a scholar named Karel, who is fixated on the story of Melmoth, a wraith condemned to wander the world. In dark robes and bare, bloody feet, Melmoth searches gutters and asylums, tempting the lonely to join her for mysterious ends.
When Karel vanishes, Helen inherits his papers — and his obsession. The book becomes a matryoshka doll. Karel’s manuscripts feature nested stories of the specter’s other victims through history, like a boy growing up in Czechoslovakia who reported a Jewish family in his village and had them sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, and an Ottoman official who wrote a memo forcing Armenian families into detention. Melmoth, it seems, likes people with something to hide. Like Helen.
Each detour in “Melmoth” could be its own novel, and I was often sorry to leave them. There is a clarity to these historical sections, a care and restraint. Perry could be describing her own well-appointed sentences when she writes of a home, “Everything in it was so affectionately chosen that it did not seem furnished so much as inhabited.”
However, the murky Helen storyline, set in the present day, has all the subtlety of Bernard Herrmann’s score for “Psycho,” except here danger is broadcast with the shrieking of jackdaws, the appearance of bloody footprints, the reek of jasmine and hyacinth. Perry strains for effect: “Curiosity put her palm between his shoulder blades and pushed him over.” She interjects: “Do you wonder what she might say, were Melmoth the Witness to come now, and offer Helen her hand? Oh, so do I — so do I!”
I did not quite throw the book at that point — but only just. I put it down. I might have spoken to it, severely: Enough of that, please. But I picked it up again, sooner than I anticipated. The novel reels you in, using the same trick of all the best ghost stories, from “The Turn of the Screw” on: Is there really a ghost before you? Or do you see the projection of your own secret sins and desires? What is more frightening than the human?
For all the strenuous special effects, it’s the simple, domestic details that shine in this book: the hard snow that falls like “a table-salt glitter,” the “consoling noises” of the teakettle, the way Perry brings a character to life in a few swift slashes. “My father,” the young boy turned informer says, “was a man made up of the parts of other men: the achievements and eccentricities of my grandfather, and my great-grandfather, and great-uncles, and so on, were his sole source of pride. I think of him now as a piece of mirror hanging on a wall: empty, unless another man walked past.” She’s brilliantly acute on women, too, the subtle signalings of hierarchy in a group of friends.
The phantoms have been conjured to stage philosophical questions, it turns out: What is our duty to each other? What is the difference between what is good, what is right and what is legal? “It seemed that they had little to do with each other,” Helen thinks.
For all the swirling jackdaws and oppressive doom, this book has a ruddy optimism at its core. Its historical detours make for a tour of trauma around the world, carrying us to the present day, to the fates of asylum-seekers in Europe. But if suffering is never in short supply, neither are opportunities for intercession, as Helen learns, to live according to the virtues of compassion, courage, self-sacrifice. “Look!” is the first word in several chapters. It is the book’s moral injunction. Pay attention, Perry bids us. Don’t leave the lonely to Melmoth.
“Melmoth” by Sarah Perry, Custom House, 271 pp., $27.99