Susan Hill Susan Hill

A woman in black

‘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.’

The first reason to read Sarah Perry is right there. She was born and bred a writer and without that, a novelist is worth little. Sometimes she falls in love with her own writing, and adds too many curlicues and decorative elaborations, but there is a stern backbone to Perry and she always pulls herself up from such self-indulgences.

She also knows how to chill, a handy talent when you are writing a Gothic — or hybrid-Gothic, novel.

‘… a woman in dark clothes seen just at the very corner of your eye, slipping from view… or she’ll follow you down paths and alleys in the dark, or come in the night and sit waiting at the end of your bed — can you imagine it, feeling the mattress sink and the sheets move?’

Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), by Charles Maturin, is about a man who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for 150 years more life, and is written as a series of stories within stories.

Sarah Perry has taken that strangely dull, preachy novel, and made it her own, setting it in Prague, a master touch. Her devil is a woman in black, who flits about the world, over the centuries, watching, listening, storing up other people’s secrets. Sooner or later the truth will out: no one ever escapes punishment for their bad deeds. ‘Who knowest the secrets of our hearts’ comes to mind, but there is nothing gracious or forgiving about Melmoth.

That Sarah Perry was brought up in a narrow sectarian church and knows her Bible well is clear.

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