28 September 2018
‘A beautiful, devastating, brilliant book’ Marian Keyes
‘Astonishingly dark, rich storytelling, exquisitely balanced between gothic shocks and emotional truth’ Francis Spufford
‘Mythic, ominous and sensitively human, Melmoth is haunting in all the best ways’ Frances Hardinge
Melmoth is the new novel from Sarah Perry, author of the number one bestselling The Essex Serpent.
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, filled with testimonies recording sightings of a 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.
Read the opening pages of Melmoth – and watch Sarah Perry read them herself, filmed in the chapel of a cemetery – ahead of publication on 2nd October.
Look! It is winter in Prague: night is rising in the mother of cities and over her thousand spires. Look down at the darkness around your feet, in all the lanes and alleys, as if it were a soft black dust swept there by a broom; look at the stone apostles on the old Charles Bridge, and at all the blue-eyed jackdaws on the shoulders of St John of Nepomuk. Look! She is coming over the bridge, head bent down to the whitening cobblestones: Helen Franklin, forty-two, neither short nor tall, her hair neither dark nor fair; on her feet, boots which serve from November to March, and her mother’s steel watch on her wrist. A table-salt glitter of hard snow falling on her sleeve, her shoulder; her neat coat belted, as colourless as she is, nine years worn. Across her breast a narrow satchel strap; in the satchel, her afternoon’s work (instructions for the operation of a washing machine, translated from German into English) and a green uneaten apple.
What might commend so drab a creature to your sight, when overhead the low clouds split, and the upturned bowl of a silver moon pours milk out on the river? Nothing at all – nothing, that is, but this: these hours, these long minutes of this short day, must be the last when she knows nothing of Melmoth – when thunder is just thunder, and a shadow only darkness on the wall. If you could tell her now (Step forward! Take her wrist, and whisper!) perhaps she’d pause, turn pale, and in confusion fix her eyes on yours; perhaps look at the lamp-lit castle high above the Vltava and down at white swans sleeping on the riverbank, then turn on her half-inch heel and beat back through the coming crowd. But – oh, it’s no use: she’d only smile, impassive, half-amused (this is her way), shake you off, and go on walking home.
Helen Franklin pauses where the bridge meets the embankment. Trams rattle on up to the National Theatre, where down
in the pit the oboists suck their reeds, and the first violin taps her bow three times against the music stand. It’s two weeks past
Christmas, but the mechanical tree in the Old Town Square turns and turns and plays one final pleasing strain of Strauss,
and women from Hove and Hartlepool clasp paper cups of steaming wine. Down Karlovy Lane comes the scent of ham and
woodsmoke, of sugar-studded dough burnt over coals; an owl on a gloved wrist may be addressed with the deference due to its
feathers, then gingerly held for a handful of coins. It is all a stage set, contrived by ropes and pulleys: it is pleasant enough for an evening’s self-deceit, but no more. Helen is not deceived, nor has she ever been – the pleasures of Bohemia are not for her. She has never stood and watched the chiming of the astronomical clock, whose maker was blinded by pins before he could shame the city by building a better device elsewhere; has never exchanged her money for a set of nesting dolls in the scarlet strip of an English football team; does not sit idly overlooking the Vltava at dusk.Guilty of a crime for which she fears no proper recompense can ever be made, she is in exile, and willingly serves her full life term, having been her own jury and judge.
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