Perry’s new novel...is another Gothic stunner ... It is a scary novel that chills to the bone even as it points the way to a warmer, more humane, place ... Bearing witness, watching, remembering—it is incredible how terrifying the simple act of seeing a crime can be. And, like a Brontë sister in a box at the opera, Perry observes the drama from an omniscient perch, examining her characters as if through a lorgnette ... Perry has created a Prague that envelops the reader in a bath of sensation ... Terror is not the point, nor is menace, exactly, although the novel offers both. The real horror of this novel is not the ghostly Melmoth at all, but the cruelty we human beings enact upon one another ... By the end of Melmoth, you are left with a feeling that you have experienced something wholly entertaining, and that you have found humanity and compassion in the process.
Perry’s characters have...become blessedly nastier ... Black magic, diabolical curses, ghoulish apparitions: these phenomena aren’t often found in books that have something to say about real-life atrocities. And Perry has ... The contrasting voices in the Melmoth dossier allow Perry to exercise her talent ... But the writing becomes increasingly uniform, and every time Melmoth appears it takes a turn for the worse ... It’s hard to know what to make of a novel in which denying the resurrection of Christ and condemning a Jewish family to Theresienstadt can result in the same fate. But Perry’s moral project isn’t limited to doling out punishments for her wicked characters ... it’s not just witnessing but bearing witness—in other words, providing testimony—that the novel asks us to see as virtuous. There’s a type of writing which does exactly that, and it isn’t Gothic horror. It seems that this extravagantly fantastical book, full of manufactured mysteries and supernatural shocks, wants to be read as a vindication of the rights of journalism.
The facility with which Perry moves between these worlds and registers recalls Thomas Pynchon or George Saunders – the sense of a writer so completely in control of her craft that she is able to inhabit any number of different guises, each of them perfectly convincing ... There’s a sense that this is a book that seeks at once to provide a blueprint for how to negotiate the legacy of the atrocities of the 20th century and a model for resistance to contemporary violence ... The hopeful note struck by this episode of defiance in the face of power is mirrored in the book’s luminous, visionary ending ... Perry’s masterly piece of postmodern gothic is one of the great literary achievements of our young century and deserves all the prizes and praise that will be heaped upon it.
...masterful ... Perry has done more than take parts from the Gothic corpus to stitch together some fiend. She has introduced a wholly new creature, a monster suited to our age ... [a] sophisticated and delightful Gothic contraption. It is scary and smart, working as a horror story but also a philosophical inquiry into the nature of will and love ... And the ending will sap your bones.
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 ... The murky Helen storyline, set in the present day, however, 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 ... I put it down ... 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 ... For all the strenuous special effects, it’s the simple, domestic details that shine in this book ... Perry brings a character to life in a few swift slashes ... She’s brilliantly acute on women, too, the subtle signalings of hierarchy in a group of friends.
Perry clearly has serious intentions. Her mission is to investigate moral responsibility in state-sponsored terror and the possibility of redemption at humanity’s lowest points. It just doesn’t quite work because the witch is so silly, and Prague so pretty, and the whole thing so playful. There are wonderful moments when Perry’s zany prose takes flight, but the impossible task she set herself has not been met. However, there are riches enough in Melmoth — a global, time-travelling, supernatural extravaganza full of politics, curses, monsters and weird sisters — to make us excited about what she will do next.
The greater hauntings in this book come from these earthbound stories rather than its supernatural elements. The human drama contains legacies of historical trauma, guilt and shame and Perry’s writing is at its best when she is describing it ... her vivid study of pain through the character of Rosa carries a great and awful power and she is one of the most haunting figures in the book ... In contrast, Perry’s descriptions of Melmoth have a breathless, hallucinatory quality to them that appear arch, almost overblown, and do not spark visceral fear in the reader ... Even if it does not inspire chills, Melmoth is filled with thought-provoking ideas on historical guilt and personal responsibility, as well as a depth of learning ... the message at its heart is an uplifting one; even if redemption for wrongdoing cannot always be achieved, there is power in bearing witness to suffering and in resisting against total, black despair.
Ms. Perry, whose last book, The Essex Serpent, was a breakout hit, again proves herself a master of atmosphere ... Ms. Perry’s novel is a master class in the history of human brutality ... In fact Ms. Perry is so good at creating a sense of horror that we hardly notice that we have strayed well beyond the perimeters of the gothic. These aren’t fabricated thrills, but authentic atrocities ... The difficulty for the cohesiveness of this novel is that the human cruelties and derelictions it describes in such agonizing detail make Melmoth’s manifestations seem stagey and superfluous.
In Melmoth, the prose is rich, elegant, atmospheric – the sentences carefully made, full of turns and delicate, closely observed detail. Perry can sketch a character in the sort of quick accuracy that is the hallmark of her Victorian model ... The prose is so luscious, in fact, that at times it feels as though it has been worked at the expense of character and plot. Perry’s eye is so sharp, so attuned to detail and so beautiful at phrasing, that sometimes the characters are described vividly, but not always developed ... Above all, Melmoth is a truly human novel, a plea for responsibility, for witness, for the need to avoid abandoning oneself to guilt, to resist being overwhelmed.
Perry’s version constitutes an ingenious rewrite: She sets events in present-day Prague, swaps macabre acts for uncanny happenings and, most significantly, transforms Maturin’s itinerant bogeyman into a bogeywoman ... The book’s Prague sequences are a slow burn, with each atmospheric scene a buildup in tension and a gradual step closer to a potentially shocking outcome ... Helen’s story meanders and loses momentum. Those other tales she uncovers, or relates, prove to be haunting, disquieting and memorable, and showcase Perry’s dazzling creative powers.
Melmoth is not subtle... It is overwrought, in a lavish, Gothic kind of way, that should sometimes have been restrained. This novel is also sloppier than her last, the wonderful Essex Serpent, and less rooted in place... But there is something satisfying in Melmoth's flamboyant emotions. The last few years have brought a glut of fashionably affectless and amoral fiction, the kind that induces a kind of weary glaze, almost like endless scrolling online. Sarah Perry's fierce, full-hearted books about love and ethics feel like an antidote to that elegant apathy.
This is a novel about witnessing, so we must look it firmly in the eye; but it’s a dark, difficult, ambitious and problematic book ... Perry has tried to do much more, ethically and philosophically, in this novel [than her previous novel, The Essex Serpant]. The effort is laudable, though the result is a lesser book ... There is undoubtedly much to enjoy. Perry is a connoisseur of airs that thicken in a watched room. Her showdown set pieces, all appealingly bizarre, deploy every last velvet curtain, shaded lamp, glass ornament and Dvořák aria that her Prague setting can provid ... Yet, in the absence of the finely traced inner lives that can be fiction’s gift, we look at people rather than with them, which puts a limit on how much we can see.
This is a novel where every sentence has been wrapped in layer upon layer of velvet, in which every word is unctuous, in which every image is just on the verge of feeling overripe. It is a book that is always teetering right on the edge of being too much — but it never quite crosses over the line ... Self-consciously restrained novels are a dime a dozen, but weirdo over-the-top quasi-Victorian gothic fantasies about sin are rarer birds. This is a lush book, so let yourself luxuriate in it.
Far richer than a romance, Melmoth uses the Gothic mode to sketch a psychological model of guilt that scales up and down ... Half spooky story, half meditation on history, Melmoth revives the Gothic form and drags it through time, into our present.
Like the Wandering Jew, Perry’s nightmarish Melmoth ranges the earth recording horrors wrought by humankind. She watches and tracks individuals whose sins cannot be forgiven, upon whom she preys with flashes of magical realism. The nonlinear time line of historical events and the nested stories involving wide-ranging and complex characters may sometimes make readers feel uneasy or even lost. But once we gain our sea legs, this stylized, postmodern work by a masterly writer compels us to see genocide, war, deportation, and even compassionate deadly crimes through new eyes that reflect the characters’ perspectives.
While the Gothic novel feeds on the materiality of horror, Perry’s approach emphasizes the absurdity that a material as innocuous and commonplace as paper can convey the world’s most unspeakable horrors. In the process, Perry does not distinguish her readers’ experience from her characters’... and instead implicates her readers by framing their experience as similar to Helen’s ... Perry enriches our sense of reading’s materiality. She explores how stories change and live in time, and, in the process, disrupt the other stories of which they become a part ... Perry’s tales are dying to be unearthed.
Sarah Perry has found a nice niche as a writer of stories in the gothic style. I always take solace when reading these types of novels as they appear to speak with a higher level of wisdom and morality that is sorely missing from many modern tales.
Helen Franklin doesn’t deserve joy, so she arranges her own 'rituals of discomfort: the uncovered mattress, the unheated room, the bitter tea,' the modern-day equivalents of wearing a hair shirt. When one of her few friends, the scholar Karel Pražan, stops her on the street to share his discovery of a strange manuscript, Helen begins to suspect her past has caught up with her at last. The manuscript contains tales from many sources, and they all detail horrors in various degrees ... In rich, lyrical prose, Perry weaves history and myth, human frailty and compassion, into an affecting gothic morality tale for 2018 ... A chilling novel about confronting our complicity in past atrocities—and retaining the strength and moral courage to strive for the future.
In December 2016, Helen Franklin has a disturbing encounter with her friend, university professor Karel Pražan, during which Karel clutches a leather file and speaks wildly of Melmoth, a specter that folktales claim was among the women who glimpsed the risen Christ. After denying her sight of God, she was cursed to wander forever, seeking out the wicked in the hopes that bearing witness will win her salvation...Helen delves into his file, which chronicles Melmoth’s appearances to individuals culpable of individual or collective acts of cruelty. Soon, she too is haunted by a shadowy figure and drawn inexorably toward a reckoning with her past ... Perry’s heartbreaking, horrifying monster confronts the characters not just with the uncanny but also with the human: with humanity’s complicity in history’s darkest moments, its capacity for guilt, its power of witness, and its longing for both companionship and redemption.