Thursday, 15 September 2011
Perfume by Patrick Suskind **possible spoilers ahead**
Now I'm not one who normally likes to start my review of a book with a quote of some kind, even if it is the breakdown of the opening paragraph, but this really does give the reader the idea of the direction this entire book is going to go and the style of writing the author uses throughout.
Where most writers will rely heavily on the sense of sight in order to describe a scene or set the mood Suskind has relied on scent, a sense that many of us take for granted but would be at a small loss without. With an unbreakable grip on his dictionary of large, descriptive words the author launches us into a stench ridden Paris that seems so lifelike in it's description you find yourself wrinkling your nose at a smell that's only in your mind.
We are introduced to the protagonist in this story in the most disgusting of settings with it's putrefying vapours and vile smelling fish masking the odour of corpses. His mother has given birth to him at her fish stall and left him under the table with the guts, fish heads and offal thinking he is dead. The mother is swiftly brushed under the carpet and dispatched with so that we can move on to the more important Jean-Baptiste (from here on referred to as Jean or J-B). The first insight we are given into something being not quite right with him is when he is described as not smelling like a baby should and from then on it's all about the scent as we quickly follow Jean grow up differently from other children and with no real moral compass except the one that he bases upon the discovery of scents.
This search follows him from solitary child to tanner's labourer onto perfumer's apprentice through to a journeyman wishing to escape all the scented taints of human 'effluvium' (now my favourite word) and, as such, his years of solitary in a cave. Thankfully these are briefly described and given a well-rounded chapter or so before the catalyst is introduced. Grenouille then moves on to a new mission of finding a scent for himself. This eventually leads him to Grasse and a chance meeting of a new yet familiar scent means that dear J-B coldly goes about honing his scent-catching methods then embarking on a spate of murders. The eventual, inevitable ending seems to have him purposefully end up not too far away or up the social ladder from where he began.
Grenouille, although the main character in this book, did not make me feel any sympathy towards him. He is described and likened to on many occasions as a 'tick': stubborn and clinging on for life but you don't see any good in him. He doesn't come across as completely human, even with his hauntingly sad conclusion on how it must all end, yet this cold and cynical approch didn't amke me want to stop reading.
In general I found this book to be rather engrossing and the style of writing was just fabulous. It was self-indulgent flattery but not enough to make me feel ill, almost like Suskind had a competition with himself as to how many different words could be used to describe general smells. His knowledge when it came to describing the olfactory senses to us poor, unenlightened masses is fascinating. I even found myself sniffing the crook of my armpit (read the book and you'll do the same at one point!). This book is put-downable but only because you need breaks from it in order to take it all in and get it all right in your head before carrying on, as well as the fact that you may want to come up for a breath of fresh air (boom boom tsh).
So, to conclude: I was fascinated with the book but I couldn't say for sure I loved it. I will read it again but I will feel just as disturbed at parts as I did amazed at others. It is a bizarre tale of a strange little man in a decadence ridden time that will have you remembering it for a long time to come.
I would also like to add that I now feel it my mission to use more of these words in my everyday life, you have been thoroughly warned ;P