If technology and price allowed, Scented would have made a fantastic “scratch and sniff” novel. As it is, the pitfalls of first-person narration make this a challenging read, and I finished the book still not knowing how well the central character knew herself. But I also wasn’t convinced that this was the author’s intention. By the end of the first section, I was pretty sure I was onto it: Fearnley had created a narrator at the high-functioning end of the Asperger’s spectrum. She can hold down a well-paying academic job in a New Zealand university, but her struggles with intimacy and relationships are compensated for by a single and all-consuming passion for perfume.
However, as Scented moves into the long central section, and then to the shorter dénouement, Dr Sian Rees, the (for me) troublesome narrator, never once makes deliberate or even oblique reference to her condition. And nor do the other people in the novel; indeed, why would they, given that drawing attention to it is something that courtesy forbids? I’m almost reluctant to call them characters, as they flit in and out of her life at arm’s length. Her only way of getting close to anyone seems to be by creating an individualised perfume for them. Lists in italics throughout the book often follow the introduction of a new “character”, as that is how Dr Rees experiences and interprets the world: as a compendium of smells which, each in a finite combination, a “signature scent”, allows her to populate and individualise the world around her. Both Dr Rees and Fearnley herself clearly have an extensive knowledge and understanding of how perfumes are created. And, because this is Rees’s obsession, the reader becomes privy to quite a lot of this by the end of the novel as well. Even shifts in location and rites of passage are summed up in strings of smells. When she is made redundant after 14 years as a senior lecturer, it is the smell of “carpet glue and boxes filled with books and old paper” that remains and is added to her attempt to create, by the end of the book, a signature scent for herself.
Using the structuring device of the way a perfume is created, the three sections of the novel are titled: “Base Notes”, “Heart Notes” and “Top Notes”. Scented begins with Rees’s childhood, much of it spent near the (long gone and very smelly) gas works in central Christchurch and her attempts to make perfume by soaking eucalyptus gum-nuts in water. The smells associated with her grandparents’ house in Waltham combine with those of her parents: her mother’s hair removal cream, her father’s home brew, the smell of his medical bag (he’s a GP, the son of working-class immigrants from Lancashire). Bullied at school for her northern accent, she retreats into a fantasy world of French bon mots and perfumes. With a Masters in American Studies under her belt, she experiments briefly with sexual relationships before acknowledging, “I didn’t long for intimacy … I didn’t want a partner and never had any maternal urge.” By the 1990s, after working in a Christchurch art gallery, she lands a job lecturing in American Studies at an Auckland university.
The long central section details her increasingly desperate attempts to get a job after the university is restructured and the American Studies department disbanded. There’s some pretty unpleasant jockeying for the few positions that are left and a vitriolic description of the university’s Vice-Chancellor (or “ice-chancellor” as she’s called by some of the bitter and recently unemployed academics). After a while, her situation becomes so dire that she is forced to sell her apartment and take on itinerant manual labour, after failing to secure even the lowliest of jobs in Auckland. With no-one to confide in, her grief and increasing despair and frustration are taken out in stunningly rude outbursts aimed at the few people she does come into contact with: a shop assistant on the perfume counter of a local shop and a real-estate agent who is only too eager to help her sell her flat. A long set piece in the middle of this section sees Dr Rees and Archer, a kind, elderly and mild-mannered American Studies professor, take the obligatory road trip through the central North Island to a bach in the bush, where she gets blindingly and embarrassingly drunk while trying to concoct a perfume out of cognac, tinned peaches and horopito.
Just when it seems that Fearnley has introduced a character who is more than the sum of his smells, she kills him off in a car accident, and Dr Rees has to bus back to Auckland. Here’s how she describes the immediate aftermath of Archer’s death:
when the police officer arrived at Archer’s cabin I knew he was a smoker … from the smell on his body. Junee, who drove me to the bus stop, smelt of coffee – instant coffee. It was on her breath. The woman from whom I bought a bus ticket smelt of hair product, a sweet fruity-coconut scent. The driver of sweat.
This is the rhythm of the narrative: every person, place and event is summed up in a detail of smells at the expense of any depth of characterisation, complexity of emotion or nuanced dialogue. By the final section, Rees has accumulated enough individual smells (“wool, dust, oak, mince, daffodils” and another 24 that have featured throughout the novel) to feel confident that she can indeed create her own signature scent: “And then I’d be whole and know who I was”, as her Granny assures her on page one.
Except that, even by the end of the book, I didn’t know who she was. This comes back to the dilemma that, for me, hangs over the whole novel. My reading of the first part of this book had me convinced that Fearnley has deliberately created a character who is “on the spectrum”, incapable of and untroubled by an inability to form close friendships, consumed by the minutiae of her passion. In which case, given the first-person narrative voice, she’s just not interesting enough to carry the weight of the story. It’s as though Pride And Prejudice was seen through the eyes of Mary Bennet (or, heaven forbid, Mr Collins). Like The Luminaries, another novel whose imposed structure brought many a book club close to blows, it’s possible to admire the base-heart-top note approach to “character” development and plot, without feeling drawn to Sian Rees herself. On a second reading, I wasn’t so sure it was Asperger’s, after all, but rather that Fearnley had a story to tell about perfume and she needed a character to hang it on, rather than the other way round. You can look forward to some heated debate, then, if your book club gets its teeth (or its nose) into this one.
Elizabeth Crayford is a Wellington teacher and reviewer.