With brooding Gothic influences seeping in and clouding around, the highlights of this unusual story for me were the fantastic writing and the intriguing storytelling.
The strange story that jumpstarts this tale is of a woman in black, Melmoth, who appears at the corner of your eye, following, and reveals herself at your darkest, lowest moment and asks you to take her hand. Her appearance winds through all stories as the book fractures from one narrative to the next, and it seems that once you know about her, you start seeing her. (Don’t look now, but what was that, just beyond the edge of the doorway?) The themes of her vicious loneliness, witnessing, and the burdens we bear—whether self-inflicted or otherwise—are ones that resonated deeply for me and felt timely.
This is a narrative where each door you open leads to another new narrative—a houseful of narratives made up of letters, diary entries, and memories, each of the writers baring their soul, telling the worst thing they ever did, and there—always—is Melmoth lurking in the corners. Who is she? What is she? What will she do? Does she even exist?
Though the main narrative is Helen’s story, it also sets out the testimony of these other poor souls—each one as captivating as the last—leaving behind Helen as the tortured witness, Helen to be haunted by their visages, their actions, their loneliness mixing with her own, their eternal unrest binding them to her and her constant ascetic need for atonement for her own sins.
This is the type of book that leaves a lot of room for contemplating. With the repeated entreaty of the narrator directing the reader to “Look!” throughout the novel, it seems to be asking—is it enough just to look, just to be a witness, just to read the accounts of these horrors? And if it’s not, what action should be taken? What could be enough to right the world, or at the very least one’s own conscience?
I appreciated the depth of the humanity in this book. It deals with very human topics within the specter of the Gothic and supernatural. The book manages to balance on the edge of the fantastic, leaving me wondering about Melmoth the whole way through without sliding into gaudy theatrics.
Still, the book felt a little unfinished to me. Each story wasn’t the full experience, a total view of that character, their wins, their losses, their virtues, their failings. They only showed snapshots; it would take a whole novel of each to get a complete picture. And with so much room focusing on these other stories, there wasn’t as much development with the characters in Helen’s storyline as I would have liked.
Still, this is an atmospheric and wonderfully written tale, perfect for a cold winter’s night.
My thanks to William Morrow/Custom House for my copy of this book to read and review.
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.