Excerpt from Melmoth by Sarah Perry, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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by Sarah Perry

Melmoth by Sarah Perry X
Melmoth by Sarah Perry
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2018, 288 pages
    Oct 2019, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Meara Conner
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About this Book

Print Excerpt

J. A. Hoffman
c/o The National Library of the Czech Republic

December 2016

My dear Dr Pražan –

How deeply I regret that I must put this document in your hands, and so make you the witness to what I have done!

Many times you said to me: 'Josef, what are you writing? What have you been doing all this time?' My friend, I would not tell you, because I have been the watchman at the door. But now my pen is dry, the door is open, and something's waiting there that will turn what small regard you have for me to ruins. I can bear that well enough, since I never deserved your regard - but I am afraid for you, because beyond the threshold only one light shines, and it's far more dreadful than the dark...

Ten days have passed and all the while I have been thinking only of my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault! I do not sleep. I feel her eyes on me and with hope and dread I turn, but find I'm all alone! I walk through the city in the dark and think I hear her footsteps and I find that I'm holding out my hand - but she offered me her hand once, and I doubt she'll offer it again.

I leave this document in the custody of the library with instructions that it should be delivered to you when next you are at your desk.

Forgive me! She is coming!

J. A. Hoffman

Part 1

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; 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, or 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.

Excerpted from Melmoth by Sarah Perry. Copyright © 2018 by Sarah Perry. Excerpted by permission of Custom House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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