Saturday 7 September 2019


I'm going to struggle with this review. Why? Well, it's that thing that happens sometimes... you read a book, get to the end, close it, and think to yourself, 'What the heck was that all about?' The book in question is Melmoth by Sarah Perry. It's my 19th. book for Bev's Mount TBR challenge and my 8th. book for the European Reading challenge 2019, covering the country of The Czech Republic.

Helen Franklin is an English woman living in Prague. She has shut herself off from a normal life, is punishing herself in fact, for something in her past. Being a very reserved person she has few friends but one of them, a Czech named Karel, asks to meet up with her. He looks haggard and is twitchy and constantly looking around him. After a lot of rambling he fobs a manuscript off onto Helen, seemingly relieved but also looking crafty at having got rid of it.

The manuscript came from a man Karel met in the library, later found dead, slumped over the desk. It charts sightings of a supernatural being, Melmoth. This being is condemned to wander the Earth, lonely and friendless, because in the Bible story she lied about Jesus's empty tomb. It's said she watches people who have guilty secrets, which every person in the manuscript has of course, and then lures them away to their death.

But so does Helen have a guilty secret and, after having read this unpleasant manuscript, she too begins to think that she's seeing a strange apparition and that the apparition is actually following her. Then Karel disappears leaving his disabled wife, Thea, to fend for herself. Helen must come out of her shell and start to live again, but can she do it?

Melmoth is a beautifully written book but it is, quite honestly, unrelentingly grim. I can easily see why the author made Helen so colourless and not terribly likeable but because I couldn't relate to her on any level the book did not work for me I'm afraid. I was expecting a good Gothicky, supernatural yarn but what I actually found was much more of a psychological study. Don't get me wrong, I quite like that in crime stories, secrets, motivations and so on, but it wasn't what I wanted this time. I'm sure others will love this book, this is just me and my expectations not being quite fulfilled.

I will say that the city of Prague in The Czech Republic is very well portrayed. Not that I've been there but I've heard it's very beautiful and untouched by modern developers and that certainly comes across in this book. It's a good city for a book like this. I do so enjoy reading books set in the former iron curtain countries that we still don't know heaps about, so will be on the look out for more, despite this one not quite living up to my expectations.



Kay said...

Interesting, Cath. I somehow have this one on my Kindle and honestly don't remember what prompted me to get it. I was wondering if I should try it for the RIP thing, but I think I'll wait. My list for that challenge is getting oh-so-long. Will keep this one in mind though because I do want to try it.

DesLily said...

I have read some books, that were well written but I never really caught on to them. It makes me wonder where the authors mind was at the time they wrote it!... Maybe with Thomas de Quincy?

Cath said...

Kay: Don't be too put off by me being a bit underwhelmed by this. You may love it. I note though that it doesn't have a huge overall rating on Goodreads, 3.50. That's not bad but is also not fantastic. I'd be interested in your opinion when you do get to it.

Pat: Yeah, it's really odd when that happens. You feel like you ought to love it for that alone, I even feel guilty not liking it. LOL But it's not enough when it feels like there's no heart in the story and a lack of direction. At times I did wonder where the author's head was and TdQ is a possiblility. LOL

Sam said...

I have had this kind of thing happen to me many times, and I end up wondering if it was really me and not the book that caused the problem. Was I distracted while reading it, did something about one of the characters or the setting put me off the book, etc.? I then sit down to write the review and rather than my usual 60-minute exercise I find myself working for ninety minutes or more and ending up with a review that I'm still reluctant to post. I've come to the conclusion that it's usually the book, not me - or it was just the wrong book for the moment (not that I've ever tested that part of my theory by going back and rereading one of the books in question). Maybe I should be quicker to abandon those books when I feel it happening about halfway through?

Susan said...

I agree -- I have to at least be able to relate to the main character on SOME level in order to feel invested in their story. If I can't connect with them at all, then there's a good chance I'm not going to keep reading the book. Sorry this one didn't work out for you.

TracyK said...

I was interested in how you liked this book, because I had decided earlier it was not for me. I still don't think it would work for me. But it is good to find a book set in Czechoslovakia ( which is a bear for me to type) so that was a good thing.

Yvonne @ Fiction Books Reviews said...

Hi Cath,

I have read a couple of books like this in the past, where the storyline as I expected it to be, never really takes off, but becomes a literary or psychological study, about either the place and time, or the characters.

I have still ended up by quite enjoying the discourse, however if it really isn't what I needed from a book at the time, it has been quite disappointing.

In my own personal experience, such books have tended to be written by academics, or specialists in the field they are writing about. If I can then switch mode into treating the narrative as simply an excellent piece of writing I have been okay, but that just isn't always possible!

Sorry this was wrong book, wrong time for you. Enjoy your Sunday :)


Cath said...

Sam: I honestly think that it's usually the book. Overhyped or whatever. Just occasionally though it's me. Oddly enough it was The Essex Serpent by the same author, Sarah Perry, one time. First time I tried it I just could not get into it, second time about 18 months later, I enjoyed it a lot. That was me, but I think that's unusual. Generally speaking I do abandon books these days, but I really wanted this one for The European Reading challenge so I ploughed on, hoping I would like it better as it went along. I didn't.

Susan: I just could not connect and that's unusual as I can usually find some point of referance. Not this time though.

Tracy: Interesting you had decided that it wasn't for you. I was comvinced it would be for me. Sad to be so wrong. By the way, you can stop typing the horrible 'Czechoslovakia' now (LOL) as the country has split and is now The Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Yvonne: Interesting that you have also had this experience. Like you, I do often end up liking the book regardless, but that didn't happen this time. She writes beautifully but there was also quite a lot unnecessary padding, a whole page describing a room, that kind of thing. As I said, others have loved the book although opinions do appear to be quite divided on Goodreads.

Vintage Reading said...

Shame, I find so much contemporary fiction disappointing or depressing now.

Cath said...

Nicola: Yes, my experience of quite a lot of modern fiction is the same as yours. Possibly why I'm so addicted to vintage crime stories.