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I liked The Essex Serpent so when I saw that Sarah Perry had a new book out, Melmoth, I was excited to get it for my library. It’s different than Perry’s earlier book, but like that one, hard to characterize. It’s the story of Helen Franklin, originally from Essex but a longtime resident of Prague and a translator. When the book opens, Karel Prazan, “who constitutes precisely half her compliment of friends” stops her as she crosses the Charles Bridge over the Vlatva River and tells her he has something to tell her, a file to show her.

They go to a cafe and he begins to tell her about another researcher who like Karel and Helen, frequents the National Library. This man, Josef Hoffman, has recently died and left Karel his file on Melmoth, the Watcher. Melmoth or Melmat is a mythical woman who is witness to people’s worst moments. Hoffman’s file contains myriad accounts of her presence in various parts of the world and various times, including rural 16th century England  where heretics are bring burned at the stake to Turkey at the time of the Armenian genocide to Nazi occupied Prague. Karel is quite overcome by her story, and Helen soon becomes wrapped up in it too.

As the book unfolds, we learn that Helen not only has almost no contact with other people, but also she sleeps on a bare mattress, dresses only in plain, drab clothing, and denies herself all but the minimum of sustenance. Towards the end of the book we learn why, and there is what seems to me an unlikely closure to her story. I was telling a friend today I did not enjoy the ending very much — it felt like Perry was trying to draw in a few last threads and I felt the final Melmoth story could have come before Helen’s final part of the story and things would have flowed better.

Still, the friend I chatted about it with helped me make more sense of it than I’d had when I read it. A character from Helen’s earlier life appears in Prague and that seemed unlikely to me, but my friend noted that if the book is about your worst moments stalking you it makes sense that this character had to show up. Melmoth bears witness, but she also serves as a reminder of each transgressor’s guilt. Without her, these painful moments would not necessarily fade from memory, but they might be pushed away, as Helen has managed to push away what haunts her and live carefully within a routine. Melmoth forces her to actively remember. Just when it seems she’s pursued Helen to the breaking point, there is a tiny gleam of hope. And then at the very end of the book, it seems as if, with no one else to torment, Melmoth turns to us, the readers . . . .

A strange little book, a good read, full of interesting places and people, not without a bit of discordance.

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It’s hard to know how best to describe The Essex Serpent. Sarah Perry‘s writing reminds me a bit of Kate Atkinson’s. This is a historical novel, set in the late 1800s. It’s also an examination of the nineteenth (and sadly, the 20th and 21st) century’s tension between faith and reason, religion and science. It’s a social commentary on the role of women in society, and on the responsibility of the wealthy and powerful to the poor, and on the way social welfare, such as housing programs, is often laced with paternalism and judgement. It’s about love in all its complexity and variety, especially as manifested in parenthood, friendship, romance, desire, and social conscience. It’s about fear, longing, joy, and despair. It’s about mythology and mob thinking. It’s about the beauty and also the strangeness of the natural world and our perception of it. It’s about illness and medicine, in particular nineteenth century surgery and the impact of tuberculosis on a patient’s mind. It’s about how a child likely on the autism spectrum would have been viewed in the nineteenth century (a bit eccentric and not prone to affection) It’s about the pros and cons of city and country life and what we need to make a life. It’s a book that hits on all the Big Ideas of being human without hammering the reader over the head with them.

Cora is a a smart, unconventional woman, a recent widow who is glad to be free of her cruel and abusive husband, and who would rather be tramping around in a man’s coat and boots looking for fossils but moves easily in a world of silk and diamonds and expensive treats from Harrod’s. She ends up in Essex with her companion, Martha, a socialist and fair housing advocate, and her son, Francis (the one who seems to me to be autistic). Their circle of friends includes the Reverend William Ransome, (who reminds me a bit of an older, more settled version of Sidney Chambers, nineteenth century style) and his wife Stella, who Cora and Martha meet through London friends, as well as the doctor, Luke, who attended Cora’s late husband and who makes history performing surgery on a stabbing victim’s heart, and Luke’s best friend George (mostly referred to by his last name, Spencer).

The way Perry intertwines her characters’ lives is brilliant. And the way she weaves through their lives the mystery of the Essex serpent is also well done; even those characters who aren’t directly interested in whether the beast exists are impacted by “the trouble” it causes. I loved that Perry’s inspiration was a real pamphlet (published in the 1600s and and reprinted in the 1800s as well as recently) alleging “Strange News Out of Essex.”  And I loved the language — here’s a passage that caught my eye (and ear) as I read it last night, as Martha is startled to see Francis in Stella’s lap: “What Martha later recalled most vividly of those last few fog-white days was this: William’s wife and Cora’s son, fit together like broken pieces soldered on the seam.” It’s not a straightforward narrative, as Perry sprinkles her text with the letters her characters write to each other. But it’s not a straight up epistolary novel either, as there are long passages without letters.

I loved it, and I loved how it ended — Cora has undergone change without being transformed beyond recognition, there’s no pat conclusion of the chaos she’s wrought or the pain she’s experienced, but there’s hope. A thoroughly entertaining and also thought provoking book — the kind of read that makes you long to talk it over with someone who’s read it too. And yes, it’s another of Simon’s recommendations from an episode (maybe several) of The Readers! Thanks, Simon.

 

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