From Proust’s “decoction of lime-blossom” to Raymond Chandler’s “I smelled like dead toads” to Hermoine Granger’s Amortentia love potion in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, fragrance has earned a hallowed space in literary fiction. It triggers memory. It invokes longing or revulsion. It fixes a place indelibly in time. And in Erica Bauermeister’s latest novel, The Scent Keeper, it forms the frame upon which the story is painstakingly—and lovingly—hung.
At the outset, Emmeline and her scientist father live a somewhat idyllic, if Spartan, existence on a remote island off Canada’s west coast. He’s invented a mysterious machine, the Nightingale, a kind of olfactory Polaroid camera that captures scent moments on specialized paper. At first, it’s not entirely clear why the duo lives in such isolation; the dad’s explanations to his daughter about their circumstances are gauzily metaphoric, and she finds it perfectly plausible that mermaids have parties that send “gifts”—like clothes, and even a goat—in their direction. But paradise, like childhood, has a fixed term, and one traumatic incident whisks Emmeline off her island into a society that she finds finds both intriguing and terrifying. When the love of her adolescent life abandons her, she sets off into the city, hoping to find either him, her long-lost mother or both.
Nearly a century ago, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Hermann Hesse observed that “Our only guide is our homesickness,” and that theme runs like a river through Bauermeister’s story, which we experience not so much through Emmeline’s eyes as through her nose.
Reminiscent of Vianne Rocher from Joanne Harris’ beloved Chocolat, Emmeline is persistent, engaging and a savant in her chosen field. All she has to do is to take her father’s advice: follow her nose, and then get out of its way.
Thane Tierney lives in Inglewood, California, and has a top note of blood orange and kumquat.