From Melmouth by Sarah Perry (Serpent's Tail 2018)

Rachel Knightley - Melmoth


If you’re reading this I’m sure you’ve felt the ‘what now?’ at the end of a book you’ve loved. It’s most likely to happen with the strongest authorial voices, those fully in command of their world and message. Sarah Perry’s Melmoth is full, sharp and wittily observant in both the story and the telling. Distinctively articulate, it remains unassuming, clarifying without upstaging the action. This is a masterclass in authorial voice, and a solid marriage between research and originality, creating a sparklingly authentic world. 

Melmoth begins with a chance meeting in the street between Helen Franklin – a Prague-based translator living in self-made isolation and penitence for a secret crime of which she accuses herself – and one of the rare people who have managed to slip under the net of her self-denial to become a friend. His panic, and the papers that have come into his possession by the death of a friend and fellow academic, lead Helen to research Melmoth the Witness, a woman who denied she had met the resurrected Jesus and was condemned to witness the suffering and wrongdoing committed by and to humankind until his return. Is Melmoth following the papers, or is she a projection of their readers’ guilt? Real or not, Helen is a perfect subject for Melmoth if not the other way around: the temptation is to walk with Melmoth, to take her hand and wallow in sorrow and regret for eternity. The alternative – reaching out for human connection to build a future, and live with and be informed by, the past – is a scarier option. 

Helen’s attempt to avert freewill with self-denial, bringing no good and denying the world of any good she might do in the future, is contrasted with the restorative power of human connection and friendship. Most impressively at all, it does bear witness: it depicts the worst acts of human against human, bears witness, acknowledges, asks “why?” knowing there can be no answer. Dr Karal Prezan tells his wife in a letter “No, Thea, there is no Melmoth, there is nobody watching, there is only us. And if there is only us, we must do what Melmoth would do: see what must be seen – bear witness to what must not be forgotten.”  There are deeper truths than the literal, and this is a great one.


Rachel Knightley's short story, 'Before I Walked Away', appears in Uncertainties III (Swan River Press) and was recommended this month in the Washington Post for where best to find the best in modern Weird Fiction. Another short story, 'Duty of Care' was published on 1 November in the Woman's Weekly Fiction Special. Her stories have previously won the 'Promis' Prize for Children's Fiction and first place in Writers' Forum's fiction competition. She is completing her PhD novel in 2019. She runs Green Ink Writers’ Gym for writers of all genres and levels of experience. Say hello or find out more at www.rachelknightley.com and www.greeninkwritersgym.com