Thursday 25 March 2021

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Scent" by Isabel Costello

“For the greatest burden is to exist without living”: this quote by Victor Hugo begins our read and, throughout the novel, we are to ask ourselves, is Clementine living the life she deserves or the life she has created for herself? Why does it seem she is being punished? What has she done in the past to be deserving of her fate?

This is a really beautifully written book with delicate depictions of character, place, and time. I was enchanted by it. Clementine is a well-crafted person and so believable. 

She makes perfume in her artisan shop in Paris. I can smell this scent, just as I can smell the city of Paris and the countryside of Provence, and when we visit Marseille all the smells of the city and the sea are there for us to indulge in. This is so appropriate for a book entitled Scent. But what scent are we to follow?

It is this that makes the novel so believable, almost tactile in its descriptions and imaginings. I love the scene of her apartment and the energy that flows from the page when she describes it - and her place of work with its inner cocoon where she mixes her perfumes and is safe until a figure from the past arrives. Her former surroundings of Provence with its heat and its history weigh heavily on the outcome.

Clementine is a complex character trapped in a loveless marriage to Édouard, flirting with the idea of an affair with Frédéric when a lover from the past, Racha, arrives in her perfume shop. What chaos will she bring to her life, a life she has chosen to lead in a particular way after the frenzy of her youth and her mother's constant vitriol?

Her assistant Suzanne, a Vietnamese woman who we thought might also be a candidate for an affair, looks down on her just as she looks down on Clementine’s best friend Martha, who looks down on everyone else. It is a strange cast of characters and also a large one, with each being developed cleverly as an individual and recognisable to the reader as a person in their own right. Bastien, Clementine's gay son who hates his father, and Apollinaire her daughter, Édouard’s favourite who is out in Australia, are just as important as Frédéric the antique shop owner. Then there is Dolores, the impossible customer striving for a perfume that is just out of reach for the creator and the wearer.

You can see there are so many avenues that we can be taken along, and indeed we are. I think you have to read this. It is an intense, yet delicate story of love lost and love wanted … but also complex in the way we are asked to dissect the outcome of Clementine’s musing. Just what scent is she following and can she find it?

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is sixty-five. He has a gorgeous wife Annie and two beautiful sons, and loves to write. He is a retired teacher, lapsed Waterstones’ bookseller and former Basketball Coach. He taught PE and English for twenty years and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years.  He has always loved books and reading. You can read a review of Jon's recent novel, Poppy Flowers at the Front, here. His website is here

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