Sarah Perry

A translator in Prague becomes acquainted with a myth regarding a creature known as ‘Melmoth’. She begins to realise that it may be more than just mythology.

No librarians yet at their post, the ranks of desks miserably empty, like sockets from which teeth had been pulled.

Focusing on Helen Franklin, a translator in Prague, Melmoth introduces us into a Gothic tale featuring ‘Melmoth/Melmotka’, a wraith-like woman who wanders in loneliness. The novel flits into past events that feature the witnessing of this being, building up a profile of this character over a long history. Helen has come to know of Melmoth through a document left by her friend Karel. As she reads on, Helen can’t help but feel she is being watched by someone or something. When Karel disappears, Helen’s interest is further sparked, and the events of her own past begin to converge with Melmoth.

Perry has a unique writing style, one which many will find beautiful but others may not take a liking to. Her ability to seamlessly delve into different time periods makes for an interesting and cohesive read which keeps the reader turning the pages. Melmoth may be a little slow to start, but Perry uses these pages to build her central character and set up the background for this novel: Prague, a city whose characteristics and landmarks form the foundation of the narrative.

Gothic in nature, Melmoth tries to frighten the reader with subtlety rather than outright horror. Perry ultimately produces a work which is profound in its revelations and which is full of surprises.

Did you interpret Melmoth to be real or just a figment of Helen’s imagination brought on by her guilt? What features of the book promote these contrasting ideas?

What do the jackdaws symbolise in the novel and how do they build atmosphere?

What was your opinion of the ending? Were you surprised by Arnel’s appearance and Helen’s decision?

What do you think Melmoth’s true motivations are? Do you think she believes that her actions are a service to those she meets?

What did you think of Perry’s writing style?

Did you find the novel atmospheric and tense? If so, what caused this?

Why do you think Melmoth has an association with the smell of lilies?


Albína Horáková dies during a performance at the theatre in which Melmoth appears to Helen. After the theatre, Helen finds herself tormented by all those that have witnessed Melmoth, she envisions them and feels Melmoth’s presence everywhere she goes. Upon having lunch with Thea, Helen reveals what she is seeing. Helen then becomes shocked when Thea says she can see a cloaked figure as well, one whom Helen though to be Melmoth. As the figure approaches it is revealed to be Arnel, finally free from prison after nineteen years. Arnel introduces himself and discusses the years he has spent in poor conditions. He wants to know he made the right choice, that seeing Helen free was worth it. Just then jackdaws appear, breaking through the windows. Melmoth appears as Adaya. Melmoth tries to confront Helen about her actions, showing visions of twenty men in a cramped jail cell and Arnel suffering. Melmoth tries to make Helen feel guilty, suggesting no one could love her now, that she won’t be forgiven. She then offers Helen companionship if Helen chooses to come with her. Helen refuses and decides that she must face the consequences of her actions. Melmoth’s appearance changes to that of an older woman, no longer resembling Adaya. She is no longer soft and compassionate but instead declares Helen to be an idiot and then vanishes. The novel ends with the book implying that they are Melmoth’s next target, that she knows of your guilt and won’t you take her hand and rid her of her loneliness?

The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry’s second novel, was named Waterstones Book of the Year in 2016.

Melmoth was shortlisted for the 2019 Dylan Thomas Prize.

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