The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus


There have been as many plagues as wars in history ; yet plagues and wars take people equally by surprise… 

I picked this up in a charity shop after reading a great online article (that I now can’t find) about the life of Albert Camus and how his experiences in the French resistance helped shape this particular novel. It struck a chord with me at the time, partly because the resistance story was incredible but also because, and I’m aware this might sound a bit grim, I’m kind of fascinated by the history of the plague. It’s obviously not the death and the suffering that do it for me; rather, as an ex-history student, I find it quite interesting to consider how plague epidemics changed the world around them. I’ve read a couple of non-fiction books on the subject but never any fictionalised accounts until the article on Camus encouraged me to give this one a try. And I’m very pleased I did.

The genius of Camus here is that this isn’t really a book about plague. Well, actually it is, but rather than dwelling on all the gory details just for the sake of it he uses his tale of a fictional plague epidemic in his home town of Oran in Algeria to draw subtle comparisons with the experiences of those living under Fascist rule. For the citizens of Oran it begins quietly enough, with the death of a few rats, but it’s not long before the city is overwhelmed and the populace is in a state of panic. The unnamed narrator’s account of the epidemic describes Oran’s year in enforced quarantine in minute detail; he describes the mounting death count, the daily struggle to survive, the fear of being forgotten by the outside world, the dwindling power of hope and the eventual abandonment of all those things that used to give life meaning.

Much of the novel is focused on Dr Rieux and the men who join him in trying to prevent the further spread of the disease. Their stories are told partly through diaries, letters and sermons, so they’re a welcome contrast to the hard, cold precision of the report style used elsewhere. In focusing on the efforts of these men in particular, and in switching the format every now and again, Camus ensures that occasional moments of friendship and kindness shine through every now and again. In fact, Camus often stresses how it is love alone that brings Oran’s inhabitants through these darkest days and keeps them fighting.

The Plague is a powerful novel and a genuinely moving one at that. The writing is simple but commanding; at times I felt so immersed in this novel it was like living in the quarantine zone myself. I shared in Rieux’s despair. I found it completely absorbing and quite disconcerting at times.



The Summer Book (1972) by Tove Jannson


During the first weeks of the new year I went on a bit of a book buying bender and I’m now feeling quite spent and ashamed of myself. Thankfully the situation is finally under control; I am firmly back on the wagon and have not bought any new books in a month, despite having been sorely tempted on several occasions. Go me.

The Summer Book was bought at Waterstones during one of the above sprees. It came down to an agonising toss-up between this and Elizabeth von Armin’s Enchanted April but in the end this was £1 cheaper so… It’s been a welcome addition to my reading year and I kind of love it, which is weird because not a great deal happens at all. This is a semi-fictionalised story set on a tiny island in the Finnish archipelago where Grandmother and six year old Sophia spend their summers. Sophia’s widowed father is also there but he’s almost peripheral; while he works at his desk Sophia and her grandmother potter about the island, exploring, watching the long tailed ducks and quietly enjoying each other’s company.

A write up in The Guardian, written when this book was reissued a few years ago, describes The Summer Book as ‘a butterfly released into a room full of elephants’ and ‘a masterpiece of microcosm, a perfection of the small, quiet read’. I can’t really say it better than that. For me the joy of The Summer Book lies in the simplicity of its central relationship. This gruff old woman, with her aching limbs and her tendency to dwell too much on the past, obviously loves the company of her curious, wilful grandchild, although neither of them would ever admit as much. They’re very similar at heart but Jannson never sentimentalises their relationship, overstates how much they learn from each other or exaggerates Sophia’s childishness. Her humour and lightness of touch are absolutely perfect and make this a really easy, gentle and enjoyable read.

It was quiet again. Sophia stood waiting on the shore where the grass lay stretched on the ground like a light-coloured pelt. And now a new darkness came sweeping over the water – the great storm itself! She ran towards it and was embraced by the wind. She was cold and fiery at the same time and she shouted loudly, “It’s the wind! It’s the wind!” God had sent her a storm of her own. 

There’s not a thing I can say in criticism of this book which makes this an unusually brief review. Actually that’s not quite true – I can tell you that as a result of this book I ‘wasted’ a good hour on Google images admiring pictures of islands in the Gulf of Finland when I should have been logging onto online banking. The Gulf has now leapfrogged its way up my list of ideal future travel destinations and I am sincerely regretting my lack of funds with which to finance such a visit.

The Story of a New Name (2012) by Elena Ferrante


I surprised myself with how much I was looking forward to jumping back into Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. My Brilliant Friend, which I read back in April, is still one of my favourite books of the whole year and I’ve been desperately impatient to get my grubby little hands on the follow up. It took a while – mainly because of that whole changing jobs/libraries thing – but it finally appeared on the reserve shelf, with its little white label marked with my name, last week and I was over the moon about it. I did a silent dance right there and then in the library. I finished the book in a week (not bad at my current reading pace) and I’m already thirsty for book three so I’ll be back there later this week to add my name to another reservation list.

“How easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila: time quiets down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport; you pick them up, put them on the page, and it’s done. 

It’s more complicated to recount what happened to her in those years. The belt slows down, accelerates, swerves abruptly, goes off the tracks. The suitcases fall off, fly open, their contents scatter here and there.


The Story of a New Name begins almost precisely where My Brilliant Friend left off: with Lila’s marriage and Elena’s growing acceptance that her best friend is finally escaping the poverty and the violence of the neighbourhood they’ve known since childhood. I’ll let you guess whether that actually happens. In this novel Lila has chance to adjust to her new life as Signora Caracci while Elena reluctantly continues her studies, pining for Nino and quietly envying her old friend’s glamorous new existence. This is a surprisingly long (and tumultuous) novel; a lot happens and all I can really say, without giving too much away, is that the friendship between the two becomes increasingly complicated and troubled.

The weird thing about this novel is that my feelings towards Lila evolved almost in time with Elena’s, which almost proves how utterly convincing Ferrante’s writing is. You can completely understand the fascination Lila holds for those around her and why they all seem to love her and hate her in equal measure. She’s at her most ferocious here; she lashes out at others to compensate for her own humiliation and sometimes she seems to do it with real relish. On the other hand you also get a real sense of how terribly afraid she is. You never doubt that she’d happily claw your eyes out to get what she wants, to prove everyone wrong and to salvage some sense of herself from her unhappy existence. Now that I think it over fully I wonder whether she might be one of the realest characters I’ve ever come across. Elena never manages to be quite so compelling but I think that’s probably the whole point. In her reluctance to dwell too much on the details of her own life away from the neighbourhood we get a very clear message that without Lila there’s not much worth dwelling on. Their relationship is frequently exasperating but it’s also engrossing and, at times, horribly distressing to witness. You wish that they weren’t quite so quick to push each other away when times get tough.

Ferrante’s writing, as I’ve now come to expect, is like nothing I’ve really read before. It’s brutal, intense, fierce even, and somehow quite urgent. It really emphasises the volatility of the relationships and the stark realities of life in this violent but rapidly changing neighbourhood. I find it emotionally exhausting at times but in a strangely positive sort of way, almost like I can’t read fast enough to satisfy my hunger to know what will happen next. There aren’t many authors who have that ability to provide such a brilliantly nuanced insight into a relationship or who leave you quite so emotionally drained afterwards.

Bring on book 3 🙂

The Truce (1960) by Mario Benedetti


A weird thing happened with this book. For the first two thirds at least I was fairly ambivalent about it: I liked the diary format, the intimate tone, the protagonist’s careful, measured approach to his affair with a colleague… but there was something missing that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. At times I think I felt a bit frustrated with the self-indulgent soul searching of the main character; he was selfish, I thought, and his concern for the delicate feelings of his new lover seemed to be a front, a way of protecting himself from pain and embarrassment. A selfish, unlikeable protagonist shouldn’t usually bother me but I found it especially hard to get on board when he kept saying things like this:

I’ve never trusted women with numbers… During their menstrual period and even the day before, if they are normally intelligent, they become a little silly; if they are normally a little silly they become complete imbeciles.

And this on his gay son:

I would have preferred that he turn out to be a thief, a morphine addict, an imbecile. I would like to feel pity for him but I can’t.

And later:

When a person is rotten there is no education that will cure him or any amount of attention that will straighten him out.

I know it’s absolutely unfair to judge 1950’s anywhere by the moral standards of Britain in 2016. I get that. And usually I do a pretty good job of ignoring this sort of thing when it crops up, which it inevitably does when you regularly read books that were written fifty years ago. But still, this time, for some reason I can’t explain, I found it really jarring. Maybe it’s just me being a bit sensitive.

Anyway, as I said, my feelings for this novel at first were pretty lacklustre and I didn’t feel that this was going to be a particularly memorable read. That’s until Benedetti reached through the pages and punched me in the face with a plot turn that I probably should have seen coming. When I reread the blurb afterwards I realised, Oh yeah, of course that was always going to happen, it had to happen. It was at this point that I finally understood why he’d put us through all that moral wrangling, all that painful reminiscing and pondering on the future. It made sense. I knew now just how much Martin had staked on this relationship and why its sudden conclusion was so absolutely devastating. He’d been given a glimpse at a new happiness, a chance to feel really alive for the first time. But it had all been a dirty trick.

So, it’s a weird review this one. Can I say I liked it? I think so, but I’m not sure. Despite my initial reservations I closed the book feeling quite moved by it and wishing there was a happier ending for Martin Santomme. I was rooting for him in the end.

Top Ten Tuesday: Novels set in France

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s theme is along the lines of Top Ten Books with [XXX] Setting


There’s a lot of scope with this topic, which probably accounts for the fact that for the first time in ages I’m actually sticking with the original TTT theme and not rewriting it to suit my own whims. I’ve chosen Top Ten Novels set in France because I’m reading one at the moment and there are several others on my mental TBR list.

Also, I love France.

1. A Very Long Engagement (1991) by Sebastien Japrisot. I’m so close to the end of this book and I’ll be sorry to finish it. I’ve enjoyed it hugely. Set in 1919, this is the story of Mathilde, her love for Manech and her quest to uncover the precise circumstances around his disappearance in the war.

2. The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) by Alexandre Dumas. This was hands down one of the best books I read last year. Edmund Dantes is falsely imprisoned, escapes and then plots his revenge on those responsible. Brilliant. Full review here.

3. Chocolat (1999) by Joanne Harris. I read a whole swathe of Joanne Harris books about fifteen years ago and this was by far the best (and the only one I now remember in any detail). Vianne sets up a chocolaterie in a small town in the middle of Lent and causes a stir amongst her new neighbours.

4. A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens. Dickens’ only historical novel and one of my favourites. Dr Manette is released from the Bastille at the start of the novel but must return to revolutionary Paris years later when his daughter’s husband faces the guillotine. Full review here.

5. Suite Francaise (2004) by Irene Nemirovsky. Beautifully written but unfinished at the time of the author’s death in 1942 Suite Francaise was intended to be a sequence of novels about life in France immediately after the German invasion. 

6. Madame Bovary (1856) by Gustav Flaubert. The scandalous tale of a doctor’s wife who seeks escape from her provincial life in the arms of other men. Flaubert perfectly captures all of Emma’s contradictions so you don’t know whether to hate her or sympathise.

7. Tender is the Night (1934) by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This book is becoming something of a TTT regular. Tender is the Night is a powerful account of the disintegration of a marriage (based on Fitzgerald’s own experience) and told against the backdrop of the French Riviera.

8. The Three Musketeers (1844) by Alexandre Dumas. A ridiculously entertaining adventure story featuring D’Artagnan and his friends, this is much better than you might expect.

9. Charlotte Gray (1999) by Sebastien Faulks. Not one of my favourites but I loved the subject matter, if not the characterisation (or, in fact, the writing). I could write a whole book about how much I hate Charlotte – and why I don’t think Faulks does a good job of honouring the real female agents who parachuted into occupied France during the war – but there’s no denying the fact that I devoured this book whole in 24 hours. It can’t really have been that bad.

10. Les Miserables (1862) by Victor Hugo. It’s long, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, but if you can get through all the filler there’s a lot of good stuff here about an orphan, a criminal, love and redemption. Just don’t go in expecting it to be like the film (it’s better).

On my TBR I also have: A Place of Greater Safety (Hilary Mantel), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Victor Hugo), The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbary) and about a hundred others….

Can you recommend any? Suggestions always welcome!

The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher (1996) by Ahn Do-hyun

Last week I went to a library for the first time in three months. I’ve been meaning to join a new one ever since I changed jobs but it’s taken a while, partly, I think, because I’m still in denial about leaving my lovely old library behind (I know I just need to get over it and move on with my life). This new library is fairly close to my new office. It’s slightly smaller, definitely a bit shabbier, but it seems to be well stocked and the books are much more varied than at the old place. Now that I’ve got a card – and now I know I can definitely get there and back on my lunchbreak – I’m going to try to get back into the habit of going regularly. Maybe once every couple of weeks while the weather’s nice.

I came away with five books on Monday, this being one of them. I was actually looking for an Elena Ferrante book – the mythical Holy Grail of library books of course – but inevitably it was out and the waiting list was huge so I ended up browsing elsewhere. The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher caught my eye. It’s short, has a pretty cover, an intriguing name, and it’s by an author I’ve never heard of. It brings us to the next stop on my Around the World in 80 Books tour: South Korea.


This is the story of Silver Salmon, so called because of his sparkling scales, who asks difficult questions that make him unpopular with the rest of the fish in his shoal. He wonders why it’s so important to make the perilous journey up river each year, why they must avoid the humans who lurk along the banks with their nets and whether this is all there is to the life of a salmon. It feels a little like a gentle bedtime story, told very simply and openly like a children’s book. Some of the language is quite beautiful but I have to say that I got a little distracted by the fact that the narration often seemed to change tenses in the middle of a sentence. I couldn’t decide whether this was deliberate, and if so what purpose it served, or if it was just one of those weird quirks of the translation.

On the whole I was really a little underwhelmed by this book but that just seems to be my standard response to any book that I think I’m supposed to engage with on a philosophical level. I very rarely come away from books like this feeling like I’ve learnt an important life lesson and in this case I think I’d have preferred a simple story about some fish. Maybe the profundity about seeing through the eyes of the heart or whatever was just laid on too thickly… or maybe I’m just a cynical, cold hearted person with no soul. I won’t say that I disliked it, because it’s actually quite nicely written, but I will say that it was just not my cup of tea.

I got four other books out at the same time as this so I’m hopeful that I might enjoy one of those a little more. In the meantime I’m slowly working my way up the waiting list for that Elena Ferrante book…. !

A Country Doctor’s Notebook (1963) by Mikhail Bulgakov 

(published elsewhere as A Young Doctor’s Notebook).

Do I express my thoughts lucidly?

I think I do.

What is my life?

An absurdity.

Now that Our Mutual Friend is well and truly behind me, I fancied moving on to something a little shorter, a little less taxing on the brain, for my next read. P read this book last year, not long after the TV show finished in fact, and has been raving about it ever since.  It seemed pretty ideal; not too lengthy, relatively light hearted (in places) and set in Russia. And we all know how I feel about novels set in Russia.

Back in 1916, Bulgakov was twenty-four years old and had just graduated with a medical degree from the University of Kiev. With frightening swiftness he was dispatched to his first practice, in an isolated spot in the heart of rural Russia, 35 miles from the nearest town and staffed with just two midwives and a feldsher. This book, written several years later, is a semi-fictionalised account of his two years in rural practice told in a series of short vignettes. In it, the inexperienced, overworked narrator must deal with emergency amputations, childbirth complications, syphilis epidemics and the wary distrust of the local peasant population. There’s no electricity, the roads are impassable except by cart, they’re frequently snowed in, and eventually there’s a revolution and a civil war raging in the background too.

“And there was I, all on my own, with a woman in agony on my hands and I was responsible for her. I had no idea, however, what I was supposed to do to help her because I had seen childbirth at close quarters only twice in my life in a hospital, and both occasions were completely normal. The fact that I was conducting an examination was of no value to me or to the woman; I understood absolutely nothing…”

The young Bulgakov seems to have viewed his time in the sticks as a necessary prison sentence, a step on the path towards finding a more respectable practice on his eventual return to the city. His stories are shocking and gruesome and horrifying to the modern reader but thankfully he never shies away from describing everything he sees in all its bloody gory. It makes for an engrossing and slightly unnerving read at times, particularly because he tells all his stories with a sort of dry, deadpan humour. This is especially noticeable when he recounts examples of his own panicked inexperience under all this responsibility. In one early scene he abandons a patient shortly before an operation so he can run back to his room and find a textbook with the necessary instructions for performing the procedure. In another he becomes completely enraged by the ignorance of a patient who refuses to accept that he’s suffering from a dangerous medical condition. These anecdotes are told so simply and matter-of-factly that as a reader you find yourself feeling quite glad that Bulgakov put himself through such hell since his experiences inspired such great tales.

The last two chapters of A Country Doctor’s Notebook shift away from Bulgakov and tell the stories of two other doctors of his acquaintance. The most gripping is the first of these – entitled ‘Morphine’ – and it’s the story of his successor at the hospital, a young man who sank into a crippling addiction shortly after taking up his first practice. It’s told in a series of diary extracts and, unlike other parts of this book, there’s not a lot of humour to be squeezed from his situation. However, it’s genuinely moving and provides an interesting shift away from the frantic chaos of the first half of the book.

All in all, I thought this was pretty perfect. It’s put me in half a mind to have another stab at Master and Margharita. Maybe in a few months’ time anyway. Probably not right now.

My Brilliant Friend (2012) by Elena Ferrante

Layout 1

The Neapolitan series (of which this is the first) has popped up on my radar a few times over the past year or so. I’ve seen a multitude of blog reviews (generally fairly positive) and a number of press and TV pieces speculating on Ferrante’s true identity (when really I don’t think she could have made her wishes any plainer). The upshot of it all is that I’ve just been a bit curious to see what all the Ferrante fuss is about. On the face of it, My Brilliant Friend isn’t really the sort of book that I would normally seek out – what with the old lady cover design and the fact that a friend vaguely mentioned that it was about ’friendship’ – but you know what? I liked it. No one is more surprised than I am.

“I feel no nostalgia for our childhood; it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.”

The story begins in the present day as Elena, our narrator, receives the not altogether unexpected news that her childhood friend Lila has disappeared. The rest of the story is told in one long flashback as Elena reflects back on a childhood spent in the poverty stricken slums of post-war Naples. She and Lila first meet while playing with their dolls in the courtyard of their apartment building; by the time this instalment of the series ends the girls are sixteen and navigating very different paths in life. It’s an almost forensically detailed, moment by moment, analysis of the constantly shifting dynamic between them as they’re pushed together and pulled apart over the years.

It’s a compelling read because Elena’s relationship with Lila is kind of electrifying. They vacillate between resentment and jealousy one minute and a fierce, destructive sort of loyalty the next.

“Do you love him?”

She said seriously, “Very much.”

“More than your parents, more than Rino?”

“More than everyone, but not more than you.”

Elena is quiet and studious and understands herself only in relation to her friendship with Lila. Lila likes breaking things, says Elena, and that seems true. She’s ferocious, a force of nature and, like Elena, I’m slightly in awe of her. Ultimately life unjustly bestows very different opportunities on the girls and while one is given a daily escape from the slums, the other is condemned to remain. It ends with a wedding, a wonderfully tense wedding in fact, and a final sentence that feels a bit like a surprise slap in the face.

Ferrante paints an intensely colourful, almost cinematic, portrait of a slum community in the shadow of the war. Shoemakers, grocers and seamstresses appear side by side amongst profiteers and thugs. The novel is so densely populated that at first I struggled to distinguish between some of the families and had to rely on the supplied character list to help me out. But after a bit of perseverance I was so caught up in the story that I didn’t even notice that I’d stopped needing to check. I love the way that Ferrante slices together the day-to-day coming of age parts of the plot – exams, pimples, boyfriends, rows with parents – with the violence that seems to be inherent in the setting. There’s domestic violence, a murder, brawls in the street, family feuds, the menacing Solara brothers… It’s artfully done.

I know it’s the worst of all the clichés, but I really found it hard to put this book down. In part I think this is because the two central characters, Lila in particular, are drawn so well. They feel like people you know. A lot of the credit also goes, of course, to Ferrante’s writing. It’s not lyrical or poetic but it’s precise. Every turn of phrase, every word, gives the impression that it’s been specially chosen for the exact something that it will bring to the scene. Nothing is superfluous. For someone who very much favours standalone novels this was a bit of a surprise to me. I’m going to put the next one on my library list and we’ll see where we go from here.  The reviews for the later books all seem to be pretty complimentary so I’m hopeful.

Daughter of Fortune (1999) by Isabel Allende


P usually goes out one night a week to see friends and I take the opportunity to go to bed early with a cup of tea, a packet of biscuits and whatever book I’m reading at the time. I look forward to these evenings hugely. However, this week, after P had left, I sat in the living room with this book in my hand trying to convince myself to go up to bed and start reading. For pretty much the first time ever, staying put and watching ‘Embarrassing Bodies’ or ‘Sex Box’ or whatever else happened to be on the telly, just seemed to be preferable to an evening with this book. I don’t usually need to pep talk myself into reading. Where did we go wrong, Allende?

On paper I think this novel sounds like a sure thing: a young orphan escapes an oppressive life to go on the run in search of love but along the way meets some wild characters, has some adventures and eventually learns some lessons about love and freedom and what really matters in life. So far so good and I had extra reason to hope here because Allende casts the orphan as a young woman. Eliza Sommers, the adopted Chilean daughter of an English spinster, is strong willed, independent and torn between the two cultures that have dominated her upbringing. It’s set in the 1830s/40s so Eliza’s also trapped by the prevailing ideas about what it means to be a respectable young woman. This I thought was the most interesting part of the novel. Allende carefully shows the reader how precarious Eliza’s situation is and how complex the family relationships around her are. Eliza’s adopted mother, Miss Rose, is particularly fascinating: thorny, contradictory, and likeable enough that I could look past the absurd sounding episode with the German composer.

Eventually, however, the story moves away from Valparaiso. Despite Miss Rose’s best efforts, the teenage Eliza falls desperately in love with a wholly unsuitable young man and, when said young man abandons her to join the Gold Rush, Eliza follows hot on his heels. You’d think that this would be the point at which the novel reaches peak excitement level but no, this was when my interest started to wane. It seemed to me that the sudden change in pace had gone entirely in the wrong direction; everything slowed right, right down and it became painfully sluggish. I continued to read right through to the end but all I really remember of the final half of the book is a lot of words and very little action. I was bored. I stopped caring about Eliza and I didn’t really mind at all whether she found her lost love or not. I was completely indifferent. I just wanted it to end.

Looking back I think at times Allende’s writing was very engaging, especially at the beginning (although this may be just because I liked this part of the book the most). She’s particularly good at quietly setting a scene and she paints some really vivid pictures along the way. The California she evokes here is lawless, inhospitable and kind of terrifying. It’s populated by desperate gold hunters from all backgrounds and races, as well as prostitutes, bandits, Indians and opium addicts. But weirdly enough it’s all described so vividly that you can absolutely understand why it holds such appeal to Eliza. Later, though, I started to find some of Allende’s prose a little tired and her detailed descriptions wore thin when the book was so clearly losing momentum. By this time all I really wanted was for something, anything, to happen. Nothing much did happen in the end but it was all wrapped up very quickly within a few unsatisfying pages, loose ends flying in the wind.

Now that I’ve had a bit of time to think back over this novel I’m wondering whether I just didn’t choose the best Allende novel to begin with. I’ve heard such great things about Zorro and The House of the Spirits so maybe I’d have been better off with one of those, instead of plumping for the first one I found cheaply in Oxfam. The experience hasn’t completely turned me off Allende’s novels though. If anything it’s probably just made me all the keener to track one down that I might like a little more. I’ll keep my eyes open.

Perfume (1985) by Patrick Suskind


I chipped away at this novel in small bites for almost two weeks, which isn’t a very satisfying way of reading anything. It’s not even a particularly long book – just 263 pages in my edition – but various lifey things once again got in the way and stole my reading time away from under me. As a result I don’t really feel like I ever got to sink my teeth into this one fully and I suspect that I’ve unwittingly allowed this to cloud my feelings about the book.

“In eighteenth century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages…” 

The book opens in 1738 with the birth of Jean Baptiste Grenouille into grimy Parisian poverty. Grenouille is gifted with an infallible sense of smell, a sense so astute it can break an odour down into its component parts, follow it for miles to its source and even bottle it up in his memory for later enjoyment. As a young man he wheedles himself an apprenticeship to a struggling perfumer from whom he learns to preserve and mix natural essences for sale to the wealthy aristocracy. However, Grenouille has a higher purpose in mind and his growing passion for capturing more everyday aromas, and the scent of beautiful young virgins in particular, leads him on a path to creating the ultimate perfume. The book is subtitled “The Story of a Murderer” so I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Grenouille’s obsession takes some grim turns.

On the face of it Perfume is a wordy book: there’s almost no dialogue but there are some pretty lengthy descriptions of smells and perfume making processes to get through. In someone else’s hands that could get pretty boring pretty fast but Suskind’s direct, dry humour make this a surprisingly easy and compelling read. I love the fact that Grenouille understands his world not using sights and sounds but through the smells he encounters around him and that this this is really cleverly reflected in Suskind’s descriptions. The Paris of Perfume has a stench that wafts up through the pages and reminds you how haunting smells can be (or even just descriptions of smells). It gives the book a very visceral feel which goes hand in hand with the macabre, occasionally gruesome plot to make a really vividly imagined story.

Given how much I love the language of this novel it’s hard to explain why I still feel a bit undecided about it. The fact that I was reading piecemeal didn’t help at all of course but in part I think I was sometimes uncomfortable with Suskind’s portrayal of Grenouille. On the one hand I like the image of Grenouille as an enigmatic parasite, a tick waiting for an opportunity to attach itself to an unsuspecting host. It’s a menacing image and I think it makes Grenouille a really sinister, creepy sort of villain. On the other, I think I found him so repellent and depraved that I could never really appreciate his unique sort of genius without being slightly horrified. Maybe he was simply too dastardly to be believable. When I combined the simplicity of the character with the slightly ridiculous climax of the novel I ended up feeling a little let down. A bit like the language and imagery and cleverness of the first two thirds of the book hadn’t really delivered in the end.

This book has lots of ardent fans, one of whom is a colleague who was genuinely horrified when I told her I had mixed feelings. I’m clearly in a small minority of readers here so I’m beginning to wonder whether I’d have enjoyed it more if I’d been able to throw myself into it more wholeheartedly from the beginning. I often find that my enjoyment of a book suffers if I’m struggling to squeeze in time to read. So maybe this is a really unfair review. Or maybe I should stick to my guns and be honest about the fact that I was disappointed. I don’t know.

I’m sticking with a murdery theme and going for what I hope will be a short, satisfying read next: some more Dorothy L. Sayers.