The Perfume Thief – Timothy Schaffert (Knopf Doubleday, $35.00)
Reviewed by Louise Ward, Wardini Books
Paris during the war – most of us have read many a novel in this genre, but the intrigue, danger and conspiracy stoppered within The Perfume Thief is diffused through scent, giving it a different nose altogether.
Clementine is a parfumier living in a rambling old house in occupied Paris in which she harbours lost boy Blue and any number of abused and endangered girls from the local Cabaret (brothel), Madame Boulette's, who will be rounded up and arrested unless they can escape.
Her dear friend Day, a singer hiding her mixed heritage from the Nazi punters crawling all over the Cabaret, introduces her to Zoe St Angel, a songbird kept caged by a Nazi officer. Zoe has a secret all of her own that will set 72-year-old Clem, former thief extraordinaire, on a quest to find a perfume recipe book that could be the saving or the downfall of them all.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
The scents in the story are phenomenal. For any reader with the ability to conjure a whiff from words, this book is bliss. The notes found in perfumes and liquors, harvested from the most exotic of plants and insects, combine in the concoctions Clem creates to evoke memories and recreate moments in time. Clem, who has dressed after the male fashion for most of her life, seeks among other things, the formula to Gabrielle, a scent not so secretly synonymous with sapphism.
To find the perfume book, Clem must befriend Oskar Voss, a Nazi who wants the recipes for reasons of his own, and prizes Clem's knowledge of Paris and of perfume. It's occupied France in the World War II and Clem is a lesbian who dresses as a man hanging out with a Nazi keen to impress Hitler — the danger she is in is intense.
The sights, sounds and smells of Paris, and in particular the world of underground creatives pursuing their banned callings, are beautifully evoked in The Perfume Thief. It's glamorous, intriguing (what does Hitler want with perfume?), dangerous and enlightening. Heady stuff.