Thursday, March 22, 2012

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

In 18th century France, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille has not had a good life. His mother tried to kill him as an infant. He was passed around as a baby because of his odd lack of scent and his greediness. He ends up at an indifferent woman's house with many other children. She sells him to a tanner as an unskilled laborer and this is where his life truly begins. Grenouille is indifferent at best towards humanity. His only true enjoyment and love is in his overwhelmingly sensitive sense of smell, which is more of a burden at the time since everything stank badly. He goes around Paris collecting these scents, even killing a young girl for her exquisite scent. Eventually gaining employ at a perfumer's shop after demonstrating his wonderful ability, Grenouille learns how to make his own scents and capture scents from different things. As he travels around the world, leaving a trail of death in his wake, Grenouille's need for olfactory fulfillment prompts him to delve deeper and deeper into his depravity. How far will he go to bottle the most exquisite of scents?

Perfume had been on my list of books to read for a long time. I decided to finally read it because Dan Wells listed it as one of his favorite books at a book signing I recently attended. He reminded me why I was interested in it in the first place: serial killer, period piece, sociopathic antihero. The story was so weird and interesting. I can't think of any other book in which smells are described in such detail or play such an important role. Suskind had a wonderful way with words that really drew me into his world. There were a couple moments in the beginning where more elaborate words were used in an awkward way, but I think that would be more of a translator error. Other than that, the language was excellent and painted a vivid picture of 18th century France in all its horrible, disgusting glory. The heavenly and vile smells were both described masterfully well and Grenouille went around collecting and labeling them as if they were physical objects.

Grenouille was an interesting character. On the exterior, he was pretty nondescript, bordering on ugly. He didn't start out as very handsome and became increasingly malformed as each misfortune presented itself and left its mark on him. Inside, he viewed himself as the highest being. He valued no other person at all and didn't experience love or affection for anyone or anything except scents. His sense of smell was his greatest gift and he mastered everything he could about extracting scents from things and trapping them in oils and perfumes. The detail of these processes were detailed and showed a lot of research about 18th century perfume techniques. Although Grenouille isn't a likeable or relatable character, I still was on his side throughout the novel. Almost everyone who interacted with him either used him for their own gain or were simply pretty horrible people. It was almost comical that these people always met with misfortune and death after Grenouille left them. We also see these people through Grenouille's eyes for the most part, so we simply see how they can be used and discarded for his greater goal: successfully trapping scents. Suskind's writing made it easy to to be on Grenouille's side despite his sociopathic ways.

Perfume was a wonderful and unique novel that mixes fantasy and 18th century France. The shocking ending proved to be horrific and beautiful at the same time. I would love to read other books by Suskind, particularly The Pigeon, a followup novel to Perfume. I highly recommend it to fans of historical fiction who aren't afraid of a twisted story.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

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