Melmoth by Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry has followed her Victorian debut The Essex Serpent with Melmoth, which begins in near-contemporary Prague. It is easy to forget that the setting is 2016, however, not least because our heroine, forty-two-year-old Helen Franklin, has no interest in present-day pleasures. She views the Prague that tourists enjoy as “a stage set, contrived by ropes and pulleys”. In fact, she has no interest in pleasure of any kind and is governed by self-denial. Perry is skilled at suggesting a whole life in a phrase – Helen is introduced to us with “her neat coat belted, as colourless as she is, nine years worn”. Her landlady is “ninety years old, malicious, unkind, devoted to sentimental opera and Turkish Delight”.