“Masterful…scary and smart, working as a horror story but also a philosophical inquiry into the nature of will and love. Perry did as much in her richly praised novel The Essex Serpent, but this is a deeper, more complex novel and more rewarding.” —Washington Post
For centuries, the mysterious dark-robed figure has roamed the globe, searching for those whose complicity and cowardice have fed into the rapids of history’s darkest waters—and now, in Sarah Perry’s breathtaking follow-up to The Essex Serpent, it is heading in our direction.
It has been years since Helen Franklin left England. In Prague, working as a translator, she has found a home of sorts—or, at least, refuge. That changes when her friend Karel discovers a mysterious letter in the library, a strange confession and a curious warning that speaks of Melmoth the Witness, a dark legend found in obscure fairy tales and antique village lore. As such superstition has it, Melmoth travels through the ages, dooming those she persuades to join her to a damnation of timeless, itinerant solitude. To Helen it all seems the stuff of unenlightened fantasy.
But, unaware, as she wanders the cobblestone streets Helen is being watched. And then Karel disappears. . . .
Loosely inspired by Charles Maturin's 1820 novel, Melmoth the Wanderer, the successor to Perry's 2016 novel, The Essex Serpent, is an unforgettable achievement. At 42, British-born translator Helen Franklin lives in Prague, denying herself love and pleasure to atone for an unnamed wrong she committed 20 years before. In December 2016, she has a disturbing encounter with her friend, university professor Karel Pra an, 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. When Karel suddenly disappears, 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. Though rich in gothic tropes and sinister atmosphere, the novel transcends pastiche. 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.