Review: Melmoth by Sarah Perry
It's probably going to be very difficult reviewing this book, as even though I've been thinking about it for a few hours now - even slept on it! - I still can't quite figure out what it's about, or what it is.
This was my second Sarah Perry book. I read The Essex Serpent last year and quite enjoyed it (it was a birthday present from the guy I was dating at the time, and as he handed it to me he goes "I bought this book for you because it's a euphemism for my penis"; thanks mate), so I was expecting to enjoy Melmoth as much if not more because the blurb on the back talks about my, as you know, favorite trope - old manuscripts that track back across large swathes of history. Unfortunately, reader, I did not.
I think that, unfortunately for me, when it comes to books I'm very predictable and original, and not particularly adventurous. I like novels that don't fit into one genre and a story that tracks off into multiple different directions as much as the next gal, but I also like the books I read to at least finish neatly, and to answer more questions than they raise. Sarah Perry is an excellent writer who can do some quite beautiful things with language, but Melmoth was just a bit too weird to do it for me.
I never quite figured out what was happening with the story, or even if there really was one. Globally, Helen Franklin gets this manuscript from a friend of hers that's a collection of supposed primary sources on the evidence of the existence of Melmoth, a legendary 'witness' who sees the worst of the world and tries to trick the people who commit the wickedness to join in her in her loneliness. It's an interesting premise, and the first part of the book definitely does an excellent job of setting up the novel and pulling you into the world Perry is building; but I think she loses track of what she's trying to do by the time Part 2 rolls around. The most interesting parts of the story are the ones where we discover the other 'primary' sources of Melmoth sightings; those little vignettes are by far the most compelling, well fleshed-out, well-written parts of the story, and I was far more interested in those characters and their actions and their motivations than I was in any of the 'present-day' action. Helen Franklin's backstory, for example, would have made a better novel on its own, and the way the characters in the vignettes embody and explore the overlap between madness, witnessing, guilt, forgiveness, redemption - all of that was fascinating, from a novelistic and a philosophic point of view, and 280 pages about any of those stories would have allowed those themes much more scope and space to develop than they are currently getting here. And it's those themes, and the way the characters and their stories embody them, that are the most interesting aspect of the book, so it's disappointing that they serve almost as a sideshow in what is supposed to be their story.
I also wasn't nuts with the resolution of the story. There was a briefly interesting moment where Melmoth is proven to be real, and have been hiding in plain sight; but after a couple of paragraphs, that turns out to have been a blip and not the actual resolution of the novel. The endpoint is, at best, ambiguous - which sometimes works, and sometimes doesn't. In this case, it works more than it doesn't - the themes of the story don't lend themselves very easily to a concrete, easy to understand climax - but I think Perry could have gone in some more interesting directions, had she chosen to.
The strongest point of the book is, by far, the writing. Sarah Perry is, as mentioned earlier, a brilliant writer who can do some very clever, very lovely things with language. She occasionally tips into facileness, where she strives for originality and a far-flung metaphor more than for clarity of thought and expression, but globally the writing throughout the book is lovely, lyrical, rich and flavored. She's been described by some critics and reviewers as a gothic writer, but I don't agree - if anything, she's baroque. She writes with a great deal of flourishes that are never gaudy or decadent, but still very powerful - when she describes the crumbling library ceiling as casting down plaster babies, she evokes a scene that is both immensely creepy and immensely sad in a way very few other authors could successfully do. Her writing is almost sensual in the way it pulls you in and almost strokes you into the story.
The book would have been better served by the author picking one story and sticking to it, rather than trying to elaborate and explore on her themes under multiple different vantage points; and her secondary characters were less well-developed than they deserved. The character of Helen Franklin's love interest, for example, has an initial sketch that makes him a fascinating person before he is turned into a deus ex machina right at the unclear, ambiguous end; but some of the scenes in the novel were so vivid and beautifully, almost liquidly written that you felt like you were present at them in all your senses. If I had to describe the book, I would say it's one where all the elements for an excellent novel are there, they just don't quite come together.
I definitely would recommend The Essex Serpent, by this same author. That one is more of a straight-up novel, with fantastical elements and the same lovely, atmospheric, sensuous writing.
Anyway, let me know your thoughts on Sarah Perry if you have any - or on whichever of her books you've picked up!