Book Fiction


Sarah Perry

Rating: 8 out of 10.

A gothic and sombre novel about human suffering and the man’s inhumanity to man.

I was not familiar with the writing of Sarah Perry when I started this. I had picked up the book from a charity collection in a supermarket and the blurb on the back described a lost manuscript and various time periods including the turn of the century.

As a sucker for adventurous history such as Blood and Treasure or Indiana Jones I had picked up the dog-eared copy in exchange for a donation. I was not expecting an emotional reflection on my own life, which, if you decide to read, is what lies in store.

The novel centres on a a plain and nondescript woman named Helen living in Prague as a translator. Her circle of friends is small, almost forced, and her lifestyle is penitent-like. She is suddenly introduced to the titular character of Melmoth via a manuscript of eye witness accounts.

Melmoth is a legend dating from the time of Christ who wanders the earth with bloodied feet bearing witness to the crimes that man visits upon his own race and in doing so offers to free those living with guilt and shame if they just take her black-robed hand…

The story chronicles, not the lives of individuals who did actively commit atrocities, such as the SS camp guards in Auschwitz, but those that enabled the horrors. The person in the street who looks the other way or the informant who nudges a policeman to the address of a family. The bureaucrats who shuffle the paperwork that enables genocide and the bystanders who would watch innocent women burned at the stake.

I wonder, when God permitted us to fall, if He knew we’d fall so far.

Melmoth is the realisation that we are all complicit in the suffering of someone, somewhere. As Helen explores the manuscript her life in Prague becomes more surreal and her grip on sanity frays as apparitions follow her reminding her of her own guilt (which we learn of in the second act).

Sarah Perry is an undoubtedly skilled storyteller and she moves with ease between different characters and time-periods, varying her narrative style accordingly. The character of Melmoth is an homage to other Victorian novels with the same name but all are really variations of the real-life story of the Wandering Jew; a man cursed to walk the earth for insulting Christ as he laboured under his cross to be crucified.

Whilst the novel is short of true horror there are two definite beats in that are likely to shake the reader (if they have any heart at all). One revelation of Hassan and the Nameless is so skillful that I genuinely paused and spent time contemplating how masterfully she had pulled it off. The entire chapter was excellent with a beautifully succinct ending. To say more would spoil it.

I do recommend Melmoth but, honestly, it is not easy fare to read and the antagonist of the story never truly becomes more than a vague threat on the horizon. The true distress is caused by realising just how easily any of us could look the other way at human suffering or worse, justify it to ourselves.

In summary, an emotional and evocative story that may require you to put down the book and reflect deeply on certain chapters.

Book Fiction

The Outsider

Stephen King

Rating: 3.5 out of 10.

The Outsider is a book of two halves; the first excellent but the second part ineffective and boring.

It begins as a gripping crime thriller with a nuanced plot and good dialogue and descends into a strange, non-scary monster hunt with vague references to previous novels which are not immediately clear.

It seems that King himself did not know how it ended so just wrote another 200 pages of X-Files mundanity.

I genuinely loved the opening chapters of The Outsider. King weaves a compelling whodunnit mystery with mountains of evidence stacking up against the prime suspect, Terry Maitland.

The character is brilliantly written causing the reader to doubt their own convictions; is Terry Maitland innocent or a stone-cold sociopath playing his captors?

King is clearly inspired by murder mysteries of old including Harlan Coben who features as a plot device. In actual fact, the novel is littered with pop culture references of all eras from Game of Thrones to the Beatles.

However, it is at the introduction of the character Holly and the Finders Keepers agency where the novel unravels and the mystery ends. If you have not read the previous Finders Keepers / Mr Mercedes novels then it is hard to drum up any affection for for the new protagonist who all other characters fawn over. It also veers the story sharply away from crime and into some easy-get-out supernatural territory.

The plot holes are filled in with Holly’s beliefs and prior experience of the supernatural. At one point she retells a story of a mass-murderer who transferred consciousness except we the audience don’t hear the story. She invites the other characters to sit and listen, they take their seats and King jumps to and when Holly was finally finished telling the tale the sun was just coming up. Huh? I haven’t read Finders Keepers so I have no idea what she told the other characters in this missing section of exposition.

Regardless, it was superfluous of the story. The novel descends into a run-of-the-mill X-Files mystery which is very light on scares or tension of any kind and a Deus Ex Machina ending to a gunfight.

The final showdown is, being honest, a huge let-down.

The third act is partially redeemed by the vivid characterisation of Lovie who was a pleasure to read but that was a highlight in a sea of boredom.

The whole novel is capped with a strange obsession with the character of Holly who is consistently complimented for her foresight, detective skills, bravery and whatever else King would like to reward her for. At one point she instructs another character, skilled in shooting, what they should do to escape a sniper. You can almost hear the experienced policeman saying good idea Holly. Notwithstanding the novel spent the first 250 pages building that policeman up to be calm and calculating under pressure particularly in violent scenarios.

The last sentence of the protagonist made a mockery of the entire character.

It genuinely feels like King wrote a phenomenal first half, could not figure out how to save the suspect and just resigned himself to oh it was a monster all along. A solid 250 page thriller becomes a meandering 560+ page let-down with a weird fetish for the nervous, anxious, anal-retentive Holly.

You can pick it up cheaply on Amazon, but I wouldn’t recommend it.