Perfume – The Story of a Murderer

I’m just going to come out and say it – this is a really strange book.

Several people recommended it to me within a week – as I am always asking people for recommendations – and although I had previously avoided the book thinking it might be disturbing or gruesome, I thought it might now be worth a try.

The subheading of this book is A Story of a Murderer. And indeed, our main character Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is a murderer.  Born with an amazing sense of smell – and yet no personal odour at all, Grenouille experiences the world completely differently to us, and the vivid descriptions of the various smells he encounters -from  the putrescence of Paris pre-sanitation to the delicate aromas of the perfumes he comes to blend – are some of the best parts of the novel.

As a young man, Grenouille finds a perfect smell – a young virginal red-headed girl.  In his intensity to possess and explore this smell, he kills her.  And thus Grenouille finds his one purpose in life – to capture this most perfect of smells in a single perfume.  He creates many amazing odours thorughout the book – ones that allow him to be almost invisible, others that make him appear likeable, noble and even just human – his lack of stench in what was clearly one of the stinkiest times in history does single him out as rather odd – even if no-one can put their finger on why.

Thus Grenouille explores the power of smell – a forgotten sense that powerfully affects how we are viewed.  In the end, he masters that one perfect perfume with some pretty interesting results.

There is all the potential in the world for deep, dark intensity in this novel, but I can’t help but feel that Suskind has missed the mark here.  There are too many deviations – such as when Grenouille takes himself off to live in the wilderness for several years.  However, the ending is eerily fitting.  In retrospect (as I by no means suggest that it is at all predictable) I can not see the novel ending any other way. I’d be interested in hearing from other readers – maybe I’ve missed something here.

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