Most humans are visual creatures. Perfume takes our main mode of perception and flips it upside down. What if someone experienced the world through smell instead of sight? What follows is one of the most memorable, strange novels in recent memory.
Published in 1987, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer follows the life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a boy born in the slums of 1700s France. Grenouille is very unusual because of his exceptional gift; his incredibly sensitive nose. He’s naturally drawn towards the perfume industry and gets accepted for an apprenticeship at a young age. This is barely scratching the surface of what this novel really entails.
I love Perfume for a few reasons. The first is the unforgettable protagonist, Grenouille. He’s a miserable person, emotionally and socially, but he’s also fascinating to read about. A classic misanthrope, he hates people, but he’s got this amazing gift. Reading about 1700s Paris through the nose of Grenouille is a wild ride, and very unique. Despite his overall despicable demeanor and attitude, I couldn’t help myself from sympathizing with Grenouille. The source of his hatred for people becomes clear as the novel goes on, and much of it is tied to his sense of smell and the setting. Imagine the smell in 1700s France. The stench of body odor and sweat, the manure, and the urine on the cobblestones. Suskind does a fantastic job of opening a window into Grenouille’s head, and we experience all the smells of the world just as he would.
The development of infant Grenouille to the monstrous adult he becomes is a fascinating journey. I will say this though. There’s a portion of the book in the middle that really drags and there’s a significant static chunk set in a cave. But other than that, this book is solid gold. Even with the lull in the middle, I’d say this is a must read novel simply because of how, well, novel it is. The concept is totally unique. The character is one-of-a-kind. The plot development is unexpected and horrifying.
This is a great novel for anyone who’s looking for something unique and distinctive to read.