Review: Melmouth

Melmouth | Sarah Perry

A wonderfully unsettling exploration of guilt and its insidious power to wreak people's lives.

Helen escapes her mundane life to work for a charity in the Phillipines. Unexpectedly, she falls in love but tragically, through "her own pride and cowardice", betrays her lover and he is condemned to prison.

Trying to flee her guilt, Helen exiles herself in Prague, denies all pleasures and eeks out a humble existence. She is befriended by Karel and Thea but their lives are thrown into turmoil after Karel receives a manuscript from a mysterious old man. The writings are a collection of confessions recorded during the English Reformation, the Nazi occupation of Prague and the Armenian genocide; all ordinary people, caught up in terrible events, all guilty of despicable acts but caught in the web of much greater evil. Crucially, all experience the terrifying presence of Melmoth, the mythical spirit condemned to wander the Earth as witness to human sin, seeking similarly benighted souls who will join her suffering until the second coming of Christ.

Karel is deeply affected by the accounts. He becomes stricken by guilt because Thea, his partner, suffers a stroke and he is unable to love her in her changed condition. The manuscript is passed to Helen who is likewise driven into torment because the moving testimonies force her to confront her own guilt. The spirit of Melmoth becomes a reality for Helen and she descends into psychotic anxiety. She is rescued by Albina, her landlady, whom Helen despises for her iron-clad self worth and rudeness. Albina insists Helen joins her to celebrate her 91st birthday with Thea. Albina forces Helen to experience pleasures she has denied herself: rich food and a night a the opera. To her surprise Helen finds momentary pleasure and relief but Albina dies in a poignant end to the celebration. Helen is plunged back to despair and "submits to all the grief she has denied herself".

Thea and Helen meet to toast the memory of their idiosyncratic friend. Helen is shocked to encounter her lost lover, freed from prison and bearing no malice towards her but only seeking reassurance that he did the right thing. In a terrifying final scene, Melmoth appears to terrorise Helen in a climatic battle of wills.

How do some people live with guilt while others are tormented? Albina says 'He gave you a life and what did you do with it? - build a prison - Idiot!'

Utterly compelling. Magnificent storytelling that blends the entirely plausible stories of people at the mercy of fate and their psychological frailties with a powerful spiritual presence.

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