Twenty years ago Helen Franklin did something she cannot forgive herself for, and she has spent every day since barricading herself against its memory. But her sheltered life is about to change.
A strange manuscript has come into her possession. It is filled with testimonies from the darkest chapters of human history, which all record sightings of a tall, silent woman in black, with unblinking eyes and bleeding feet: Melmoth, the loneliest being in the world. Condemned to walk the Earth forever, she tries to beguile the guilty and lure them away for a lifetime wandering alongside her.
Everyone that Melmoth seeks out must make a choice: to live with what they’ve done, or be led into the darkness. Helen can’t stop reading, or shake the feeling that someone is watching her. As her past finally catches up with her, she too must choose which path to take.
Exquisitely written, and gripping until the very last page, this is a masterpiece of moral complexity, asking us profound questions about mercy, redemption, and how to make the best of our conflicted world.
My reading experience:
By the time I was 4 lines in, I was in love with this story. Sarah Perry has a way with words – eloquent, elevated and exquisite. So very pleasantly erudite, worthy of the subject matter – a manuscript filled with collected tales of Melmoth, a mystical being – tales bequeathed by the dead hand of a long time library companion to one of our protagonists, Karel. It doesn’t escape the reader that the story starts in the magnificent setting of The National Library of the Czech Republic in Prague. However, do not be misled into thinking the story will stay in the library.
This book is a literary tale of ghostly encounters, shadows in the dark and that feeling of being watched – I was really quite unnerved and found it to be a ghostly thriller of sorts. These are no ordinary tales of encounters, it is a story filled with historical references not in the least because the jittery and meek Helen has does something awful in her past that makes her believe she should be led into the darkness and suffer as Melmoth does, doomed to wander the earth in loneliness for all her days.
Helen’s past is of course revealed and when you least expect it. Her stage is filled with eccentric characters that would light up a movie screen with both verbal and literal colour if this was made into a film. This eclectic bunch are Helen’s world and they are an interesting set of acquaintances. I particularly enjoyed the elderly and antagonist Alvina Horakova layered in black and garnets. It was easy to imagine her as an apparition moving through her apartment in an uncompromising life.
This is a haunting story filled with melancholy and longing. Choose the path of this book wisely. Another triumph from Sarah Perry and Serpents Tail.