The protagonist of Dara Horn’s Eternal Life is a Second Temple-era Jewish woman cursed with eternal life. Similarly, the protagonist of Sarah Perry’s Melmoth is a Jewish woman from the same time but, in her case, fated to wander the earth for eternity as punishment for witnessing Jesus’ resurrection and then denying she did so. Michael Weingrad notes a singular difference in how the two books address their shared central question of “why go on?”
Horn [considers]—and this is what makes her tale so distinctive—not the value of an individual life but the determination to be fruitful and multiply, to continue the Jewish story through our children and our children’s children. Horn shows that the will to enlarge a family is the deepest expression of faith not only in the divine but in the human, too. As contemporary demography suggests, when that faith weakens, birthrates fall. Human concern retreats to the shape and duration of the individual’s life. The import of Horn’s book for our moment, then, is not [her protagonist] Rachel’s longevity but her natality. . . .
[By contrast], Perry’s wraith-like wanderer is an eternal witness to human cruelty with none of the consolations of religious belief. The subjects of her visitations are bystanders, and sometimes worse, to the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, Christian religious persecution, violent misogyny, the deportation of illegal immigrants, and the criminalization of euthanasia. Call it progressive gothic.
Like Horn’s novel, Perry’s asks: why go on? But here the question means, why go on when humanity is so ugly? Why go on when each of us is so implicated in the injustices of the world? . . .
I couldn’t help being struck by the fact that not one of the half-dozen or so characters visited by Perry’s [protagonist] has children. Some are married, some elderly, but none, it seems, is a parent. Perry’s novel seems to warn of the despair that accrues from witnessing the world without a vantage point larger than the self. Horn’s is about a certain hopeful yearning for the world, a hope that in some sense is our children.