Bibliophile | Sarah Parry’s Melmoth is chilling and spellbinding

by Sarah Parry
Serpent’s Tail

Helen Franklin is living in exile in Prague, hoping to eventually find redemption. She is 42 years old and has a simple life, denying herself all pleasures because she has imposed upon herself a penance for a crime she committed twenty years previously. A crime for which she “fears no proper recompense can ever be made” and for which she “willingly serves her full life term, having been her own judge and jury”.

Spending a considerable amount of time in the National Library of the Czech Republic, she becomes friendly with Karel Prazan and then his wife Thea. When Josef Hoffman dies at desk 209 in the library, he leaves Karel a folder that contains a few documents including Hoffman’s writing outlining his past sins and the betrayals that had been lying heavily upon him. When his wife has a stroke, Karel disappears and leaves the documents to Helen.

‘The Hoffman Document’ is filled with testimonies from the darkest chapters of history and always hovering in the background of all the accounts is a tall silent woman, patiently watching and waiting. With bloodied bare feet and dressed in black silk that blows in the wind, Melmoth the Wanderer watches, her “eyes upon you in your guilt and transgression”. She is ready to let you escape your torment and follow her into the darkness.

This dark and spellbinding narrative actually gave me chills. Even though Melmoth is only supposed to be a legend, and this is just a story, jackdaws beat at windows in increasing numbers and Helen is haunted by her shadowy presence patiently biding her time. Eventually the reader finds out the sin that has put her life on hold and it poses quite an ethical dilemma.

Lezly Herbert

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