Author: Patrick Suskind
Date Published: 1985
Patrick Suskind’s Perfume follows the life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, abandoned at birth in the slums of eighteenth-century Paris, but blessed with an outstanding sense of smell. This gift enables Jean-Baptiste to master the art of perfume making, but one scent evades him: that of a virgin, whom he must possess to ensure her innocence and beauty are preserved. Laced with sense and suspense, this is a beguiling tale of lust, desire and deadly obsession.
I accidently watched the end of the ‘Perfume’ film (generally I run away with my hands over my ears if I happen across a movie adaption of a book I haven’t read yet, but I was stuck this time). Given the interesting nature of the ending, I quickly decided to pick up the novel.
Perfume is a small to medium sized book (depending on your reading speed and habits) of only 263 pages. I read the first page and I was hooked. Despite reading a great deal, and loving or at least appreciating most of the literature I come across, that immediate reaction of ‘oh my, this is awesome’ is still quite rare and elusive. Seeing the movie ending beforehand only made me appreciate the writing skills of Suskind – the gravity of the scenes were still tantamount due to his writing prowess, despite my knowledge of events.
Suskind’s description of the world through the lens of Grenouille is astoundingly brilliant. My nose was suddenly awoken to another world we largely ignore. He gives new meaning to the words ‘sensual’ and ‘olfactorily’. His opening description of Paris and the stench of humanity is incredible, however the layers of detail are built upon and made even more complex once Grenouille is brought directly into the plot (for instance, Suskind can even describe the smell of glass convincingly. I have since been sniffing glass). ‘Perfume’ from the outset is a unique concept, even before this extraordinary sense of smell is placed within a demented murderer.
Grenouille, as far as sociopaths go, is far more bearable than the likes of Patrick Bateman. He is grotesque, however the fascinating world he lives in saves the character. Instead of being barren (or even worse being boring) Grenouille’s actions and perceptions are lively. He exists in an entirely different reality to humankind – including vastly different desires and a complete lack of compassion or empathy – where humans are merely vague echoes of their scents and the pungent world around him is a symphony of stenches. His grandiose thoughts are sometimes comical and ridiculous, but mostly callous and odd. However, Suskind seems to have realised that being drenched in this state of soullessness could become tiresome, as the audience often shifts between characters. The other characters such as Madame Gaillard and Richis are equally fascinating, textured and idiosyncratic. I particularly enjoyed reading Baldini. The ancient processes of perfumery are described lovingly and make you appreciate the art and passion of the craft.
There are many skills in Suskind’s writing style which are executed spectacularly. He seamlessly switches perspectives between characters and omnipotent narrator, as well as between first and second person. Suskind also steps beyond the 1700’s to quickly explain notions such as volatile substances in liquids from a scientific standpoint, before jumping back to the 18th Century. This especially assists our understanding, and thus the entertaining aspects, of Grenouille as he hardly seems to understand himself at all.
The intelligence and wit of Suskind are combined fabulously with the rich, crazed world of Grenouille and his sensory perceptions of humanity. ‘Perfume’ will captivate lovers of modern classics and casual readers alike.
♥♥♥♥♥ – 5/5