Sarah Perry was raised a Strict Baptist, with a number of exotic beliefs – in the literal existence of the devil, the creation of the earth in six days, the sinfulness of women wearing trousers – whose most visible legacy is her interest in ethical and existential questions. That makes her rare among her generation of British writers. She abandoned the sect in her twenties over its opposition to gay marriage, but in interviews she appears still to have a complicated relationship with Christianity. ‘I describe myself as being post-religious, which is not quite the same thing as post-faith. I still have faith,’ she told the Irish Times, adding that ‘it was necessary for me to leave behind the faith that has been the main driving force of my life if I was to write.’ She won’t sidestep ‘logic and reason’ because of ‘something someone said a book said’, yet she still sometimes goes to church, and finds hymns ‘almost intolerably moving’. Her mixed feelings have played out in her novels – three of them so far – in a variety of interesting and not so interesting ways.
After Me Comes the Flood (2014), her terrifically eerie and ambiguous debut, is full of characters uncertain where they stand in relation to God, including ‘a lapsed atheist with a vice for prayer’ and a disenchanted preacher who can’t break the habit of religious talk. The story takes place during a heatwave so severe that London has more or less emptied. ‘The world ending because its Maker has decided it’s high time is one thing,’ a character reflects. ‘It collapsing without purpose or meaning is quite another.’ John Cole, an ageing bookseller, is one of the last to leave, and gets lost when he finally does, ending up in the grounds of a dilapidated country house whose residents seem to be expecting him. Perry handles his growing sense of dread with considerable skill; the implausibilities and holes in the plotting even seem to feed into the uncanny atmosphere. The novel argues that religious concepts still influence secular society, and the story has a seven-day timeframe, a love interest called Eve, an apple-yielding garden and images of floods.
The Essex Serpent (2016) – which was book of the year at the 2017 British Book Awards and a bestseller in hardback – approaches its themes more directly. Set in 1893, it follows a love triangle between a spirited widow with an interest in natural history, a maverick surgeon and a kind but uncompromising vicar who spends much time discussing the relationship between faith and reason with the widow. There are rumours that the serpent of the title, a monstrous winged creature last heard of in the 17th century, has returned to the Blackwater estuary and is responsible for the death of a man who washed up on New Year’s Day ‘naked, his head turned almost 180 degrees, a look of dread in his wide-open eyes’. Yet the novel has a relentlessly uplifting view of human nature. All the major characters are given to acts of altruism, from secreting money in the homes of less well-off friends, to keeping quiet about a fatal illness so as not to cause any bother. The two central female figures – the free-thinking widow and the vicar’s loyal, consumptive wife – entertain condescending thoughts about each other before they meet, but the moment they do, take ‘such a liking to the other it was agreed it had been a great shame they’d not met during childhood’. Even when the characters speak brusquely it is with ‘good humour’, though of a ‘deeply buried’ kind. The effect is a bit like reading a Dickens novel peopled entirely by Joe Gargerys and Esther Summersons – you long for a villain to come along and shake things up. (Certainly, the conversations about faith and reason would be more engaging if everyone wasn’t so weirdly tolerant of the opposing view.) The novel was widely described as Gothic by reviewers, but if that label can fit a story that affirms the fundamental decency of human beings, then the genre has come a long way since the days of debauched aristocrats and murderous monks.
What rescues The Essex Serpent is Perry’s helter-skelter prose. Her paragraphs plunge cheerfully ahead, scattering detail and metaphor, before discovering their purpose in the most unlikely places:
At Euston Square and Paddington the Underground stations received their passengers, who poured in like so much raw material going down to be milled and processed and turned out of moulds. In a Circle Line carriage, westbound, fitful lights showed the Times had nothing happy to report, and in the aisle a bag spilled damaged fruit. There was the scent of rain on raincoats, and among the passengers, sunk in his upturned collar, Dr Luke Garrett was reciting the parts of the human heart.
The fast-and-loose attitude to scene setting, and the quirky inclination to privilege things over people are appealing, although it’s strange to encounter historical fiction so nonchalant about period detail: Dr Garrett’s commute, like many other scenes in The Essex Serpent, could be set at more or less any point in the last 150 years. In her acknowledgments, Perry mentions Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians, whose thesis is that our great-grandparents weren’t the sexually repressed fuddy-duddies of popular caricature, but brash consumerists, just like us. But they were a lot less like us than Perry would like to think. The Essex Serpent is giddy with anachronism, from the way the widow strolls arm-in-arm with her servant (who also calls her by her first name), to the girl who wonders if ‘she’d be a vicar like her father when she grew up’ (maybe if she lives to be 110), and the doctor who suggests that a boy ‘might benefit from analysis’ (it’s clear he means psychoanalysis, though that would anticipate Freud’s coining of the term by several years). When I came to a line about ‘the women surgeons and socialists, satirists and actors, artists, engineers and archaeologists who were apparently to be found anywhere but in Essex’ in the 1890s, I started to wonder if the novel wasn’t set in an alternative universe. But no, it’s just a version of the 19th century in which the outlying has become central – in which a 21st-century woman of a liberal, feminist bent, in flight from fundamentalism but sympathetic to religious sentiment, can feel at home.
In Melmoth, Perry’s new novel, the anachronistic traffic is productively reversed: the frame narrative takes place in Prague, in the winter of 2016-17, but the baroque prose and heavy Gothic furniture (crumbling churches, gathering jackdaws, a bound manuscript that gives off ‘an animal smell, like the leather was rotten’) conspire to suggest that ancient forces are at work. Perry’s characters have also become blessedly nastier. One of them recalls that when he first saw a childhood neighbour, ‘his blue intelligent eyes … met mine with a sensation like the touch of hand on hand’: ‘Was it then I hated him,’ he wonders, ‘or was it later, when I saw how often he laughed?’ Another character describes a car crash: ‘my friend’s nose never looked right after, but she was ugly anyway and it didn’t matter.’ In one splendidly unsavoury scene, Helen Franklin, the novel’s clever, unhappy heroine, sits with three other women discussing their greatest ever sin. One of them admits that as a child she routinely stole money from her mother: ‘Helen does not like this admission of a small, mean transgression. It would be somehow more likeable, and certainly more glamorous, if her friend had, say, killed a dog in a fit of temper.’
Helen is from Essex, ‘42, neither short nor tall, her hair neither dark nor fair’, and has for many years been living in self-imposed exile in Prague – her reasons are withheld until three-quarters of the way through the book. This means that Perry can grant us only partial access to her thoughts, with often frustrating results. Walking down the street, she hears someone singing ‘I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls’, ‘and its effect … is like that of a blow to her back.’ Why? Perry doesn’t say, leaving the line in its little limbo of half-sense. The smell of an unwashed body ‘summons a memory which is instantly suppressed’. So is the sentence in which it occurs, since it communicates little. For most of the book Helen remains a blank, a bundle of untethered feelings and indefinite memories – scrubbed of the sort of detail that might turn her into a character. All of this makes it hard to give much credence to her fear of Melmoth, a deathless woman ‘cursed to walk from Jerusalem to Constantinople, from Ireland to Kazakhstan’, who appears in a puff of smoke, or a swarm of flies, or a sudden gathering of dark rags, and inveigles the guilty to join her in her walking.
The scenario is lifted from Charles Maturin’s spine-chiller Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), about a man who, having sold his soul to the devil for 150 more years of life, spends that time looking for someone to take his place. Perry changes Melmoth’s gender, and makes her as much a witness as a wanderer, ‘condemned always to appear where all’s most cheerless, dark and deadly’, but retains the original structure of nested documents which seem to prove that the fiend is real. The story gets underway when Helen’s friend Dr Karel Pražan hands her a folder containing accounts of Melmoth written by those from all over the world who have seen her. They include a German who denounced his Jewish neighbours to the Nazis, a 17th-century Englishman complicit in the persecution of Catholics and an Ottoman official involved in the Armenian genocide. These sinners regard Melmoth with ‘a kind of longing terror’. It’s never quite clear whether she’s offering them punishment or salvation.
Black magic, diabolical curses, ghoulish apparitions: these phenomena aren’t often found in books that have something to say about real-life atrocities. And Perry has. When the German wonders what he’s done to his neighbours, he’s assured that they have been taken somewhere positively luxurious – but the footnotes tell us the facts: ‘The Red Cross sent a young man to visit Theresienstadt and make a full report. He found that all was well … The camp was not overcrowded … It was not, because ten thousand prisoners had been transported away the preceding week, to Auschwitz, where there was no witness.’
The contrasting voices in the Melmoth dossier allow Perry to exercise her talent: as well as Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and Turkey during the First World War, 1990s Manila (‘the heat, the shopping malls kept cool to allow the wealthy to wear their furs, the shanty towns that had a strong scent of washing powder’), 1930s Cairo (‘buildings with white balconies and Arabic slogans painted on the plaster … basket-sellers and awnings and at the end of the road a gold-and-white minaret’) and 1630s Lavenham (‘much wet with rain’). But the writing becomes increasingly uniform, and every time Melmoth appears it takes a turn for the worse. From the Lavenham section: ‘That which she had supposed to be naught but smoke, was revealed to be a woman, clad in some thin black Stuff, the like of which she had never seen before, since it seemed that the cell was full of wind, which moved the woman’s apparel.’ Perry’s diction in the present-day sections also grows unexpectedly elaborate. When the narrator wants to say that even Prague gets boring after a while, it comes out like this: ‘It is restful to be exempted from the obligation to find, in every spire and pinnacle of the mother of cities, reason to wonder and delight.’ The origins of the Melmoth legend are first explained in the voice of a 1930s schoolmaster, but the tone is much the same:
You know, as your bible has taught you, that a company of women came to Jesus’s tomb, and found it empty, and the stone rolled away, and right there in the garden they saw the risen son of God. But among them was one who later denied that she had ever seen the resurrected Christ. Because of it she is cursed to wander the earth without home or respite, until Christ comes again. So she is always watching, always seeking out everything that’s most wicked, in a world which is surpassingly wicked, and full of distress. In doing so she bears witness, where there is no witness, and hopes to achieve her salvation.
It’s hard to know what to make of a novel in which denying the resurrection of Christ and condemning a Jewish family to Theresienstadt can result in the same fate. But Perry’s moral project isn’t limited to doling out punishments for her wicked characters. The reader is addressed as ‘witness’, and repeatedly instructed: ‘Look!’ At first, it seems that this is all that’s required of us. But halfway through, Dr Pražan sees an elderly asylum seeker being mistreated on the ‘bright concourse of a London airport’. Shaken, he decides that ‘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.’ So it’s not just witnessing but bearing witness – in other words, providing testimony – that the novel asks us to see as virtuous. There’s a type of writing which does exactly that, and it isn’t Gothic horror. It seems that this extravagantly fantastical book, full of manufactured mysteries and supernatural shocks, wants to be read as a vindication of the rights of journalism.