After the pretty intense, harrowing tale told in We Need to Talk About Kevin, I perhaps should have picked something a little more light-hearted for my next read. However, this is what I plumped for: Patrick Süskind’s popular 1985 novel, Perfume.

Perfume by Patrick Süskind

Perfume takes us back to 18th century Paris, with all of its crowded streets, its teeming inhabitants, its noise and its stench. And born into this bustling and often brutal milieu is the strange, dark and unique figure of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an orphan. Here are the opening lines of the novel:

In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages. His story will be told here. His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille…

As well as a total lack of emotion, Grenouille is notable for being  born with the most extraordinary sense of smell. Where other people may just about be aware of a vague odour of some kind, Grenouille is able to instinctively pick out all of the subtle scents that have combined to produce the aroma. More and more, he relies on his sense of smell over and above his other senses, to the extent where he is able to go out in the dark and “see” his way round simply by following his amazing nose. What makes this supernatural sense of smell even odder is the fact that Grenouille has absolutely no scent himself, something which other people seem to almost unconsciously pick up on, leading him to be a permanent persona non grata.

Armed with his extraordinary sense of smell and an ever increasing obsession to produce the perfect scent, Grenouille soon apprentices himself to a famous Parisian perfumer to learn as much as he can about the formal techniques of scent extraction. Needless to say, the young orphan proves very adept in all aspects of the trade and could have become truly the world’s greatest perfumer. However, such aspirations do not interest young Grenouille; what he wants is the perfect human scent…

I wouldn’t want to give too much away, but I think I can safely say that if you have read the novel’s sub-title (“the story of a murderer”) and if you are at all familiar with Gothic tales, then it will come as little surprise to you to discover that young virgins are somehow caught up in Grenouille’s infernal quest.

In summary I would have to say that this is a dark but compelling read, certainly unique in its focus and exploration of the sense of smell, which it chronicles in amazing depth. Finally, some trivia: Perfume was reportedly one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite books, and was the inspiration for Nirvana’s “Scentless Appearance” track from their In Utero album.

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