Back in 1985 Patrick Suskind came up with the best selling novel “Perfume” (Das Parfum) which attempted to explore the relationship between the sense of smell and the emotional attachments that those experinces may hold. This was made into a film by one of my favourite directors Tom Tykwer in 2006. I distinctly recall both art forms and the problem they had attempting to create an experience based on an olfactory response in the written word or on film, both being primarily sight driven.
Zoom forward to 2012 and we suddenly have an amazing first novel by Alison Moore which not only attempts to replicate the sense of smell but also covers the spectrum of balance, spatial awareness, light, dark, sound, taste and touch all pieced together in a bleak setting of failed relationships.
Our main protagonist is Futh, a middle aged and recently separated man, who is on a journey to Germany for a walking holiday. His recollections of his parents failed marriage kick in on page one and his revisitations of his childhood continue throughout this short novel.
Written in sparse dark prose, we actually feel our way through Futh’s darkness as he recalls the same haunting moments from his youth and his failed marriage over and over again. Each time, the darkness is broken by a new revelation (the lighthouse piercing the darkness) and slowly but surely a more holistic picture is formed. But are we fully aware of the danger ahead?
In the night, there will be a storm. It will be brief, if a little violent, and hardly anyone will even realise it has occurred, although they might hear it raging, thundering, in their dreams.
In the morning, by the time people are up and about, the sun will be out again, and the rain-soaked pavements will be dry, and there will be very little evidence of damage.
Short, sharp chapters with titles such as “violets’, “coffee, “beef and onion”, “perfume” and more each give us a snippet of Futh’s life or the life of Esther, the wife of the owner of the first hotel Futh visits in Hellhaus (German for bright house or light house).
He talked about flash patterns. ‘The light,’ he said, gazing fixedly at the hazy horizon, ‘flashed every three seconds and can be seen from thirty miles away. In fog, the foghorn is used.’ And Futh, looking at the lighthouse, wondered how this could happen – how there could be this constant warning of danger, the taking of all these precautions, and yet still there was all this wreckage.
This is a novel which addresses loneliness, fate, doomed relationships, isolation and a whole lot more of those remote, bleak, depressive and dark emotions and all in a setting of constant “lighthouse” reminders (Futh carries a silver lighthouse vial that used to contain perfume). Add in the clever attempt at presenting all the senses (hearing, sight, touch, smell and taste) throughout and we have a very bold and memorable first novel. If you are not entranced by the tight but accurate descriptions of stilettos on hardwood floors, or camphor as mothballs or sunburn and hot baths then this novel may not be to your liking.
Even though we almost know our main character's fate before we start page one (is Murial Spark's intro quote that much of a giveaway?) we cannot help but to be drawn closer and closer to the ending, as a moth to a lamp or a fly to a venus fly trap.
My first novel from the 2012 long list was “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” another tale of a failed relationship and a walking journey (also with inadequate footwear) but really that is where the comparisons end. Both novels I’m glad to have had the privilege of reading and to think I was approaching 2012’s long list with such trepidation!