I don’t normally recommend books that make me feel gross but then I read Perfume by Patrick Suskind and here we are. As is hinted by the title, Perfume focuses on scents. It is the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man born with no natural scent of his own but a preternatural sense of smell. The problem for the orphaned Grenouille is that very little in 18th century Paris is very pleasant to smell. The way some novels describe stunning landscapes or mellifluous sounds, Perfume describes scents. And many of these scents are unpleasant, even horrific. Grenouille takes them all in though; he doesn’t discriminate between “good” or “bad” smells. He smells them all, sometimes from miles away, and he catalogs them in his twisted mind. He is, as he is described several times, an abomination. As he makes his way through the world, portending or causing havoc, he receives training as a perfumer and then his ideas begin to take shape.
I hesitate to give too much of the plot away, not that the book is a mystery but very little of it goes as you might expect. One thing that Suskind gets across vividly is how powerful smells are and how people ignore that fact. Just the descriptions of the smells of Paris are enough to raise goose bumps. Despite being uncomfortable, I found myself wanting to start a new chapter as soon as I finished one. The story is so unusual and the characters (reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor) are almost uniformly terrible people so I had to find out what was going to happen to them all. It is a quick, compelling read and the closer we get to Halloween, the more sense there is to reading something that makes you uneasy. As I said, I don’t want to give too much away but I can’t help but mention that the ending is odd and wholly unexpected…until you think back on how Suskind, with almost no editorializing, wrote of the bizarre events that led to the conclusion.
If you like Perfume, you should check out In Utero by Nirvana which includes the song “Scentless Apprentice” inspired by the novel.