The Book of Lost Fragrances

A family steeped in the history and tradition of fragrance and essences, the son Robbie desperate to keep the flailing ‘House of l’Etoile’ alive, though he lacks the natural olfactory talent of his sister Jac, who is busy chasing the origins of myths (though unlike her brother does not believe in them), while trying to forget her one great love, the archeologist Griffin.

“Jac wanted to help people understand that stories existed as metaphors, lessons and maps – but not as truths.”

M.J.Rose’s The Book of Lost Fragrances’, brings all three to Paris on the trail of an elusive scent that may have the power to provoke memories of past lives, a holy grail for Buddhist’s whom Robbie is determined will have the fragments of a piece of pottery that retains some remnant of the transporting blend, at a time when there is the threat of Chinese regulations mandating the registration of all reincarnates. And it just happens that the Dalai Lama is in town on a low key visit, as is Xie, the kidnapped Panchen Lama.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

Through episodes that take us from past through to present, we begin to understand what connects the l’Etoile family with Cleopatra, a French nun named Marie-Geneviève and discover what secrets lie beneath the city, navigating the catacombs of Paris.

I can well imagine it as a film, instant travel to some stunning, majestic locations many only dream of visiting, overlaid with suspense, adventure and exotic travel back in time, however for me the book skimmed hurriedly through passages, even to the point of multiple sentences beginning with past verb tenses, as if they were to be fixed later, I found this annoying and it interrupted the flow.

“He’d been moved from the intensive care unit to a regular room. Was sleeping. Had been since she’d arrived a half hour before. She was waiting for him to wake up. Because she needed him to do something.”

All the elements are there, it just didn’t engage me as much as I had hoped it would, also due to a tendency to over explain, it is an historical account but may have worked better if the characters had informed us of some of that history rather than the narrator.

After revelling recently in the joy of Eowyn Ivey’s exquisitely constructed sentences and reading Jhumpha Lahiri’s excellent essay on Sunday entitled ‘My Life’s Sentences’ which I wholeheartedly concur with, it could just be that I had unreasonably high expectations of this exotic historical, biographical mystery. That recent foray into the realm of magical literary realism with its own excellent dose of believable suspense, did mean that next reads were likely to suffer the after effect. The snowy wilderness of Alaska, Faina, Mabel and Jack and The Snow Child’ remain indelibly marked on my reading brain.

My Magic Elixir's on Show

I did love finding out what was in the mysterious elixirs, being someone who likes to mix and make essential oil potions myself in my work, I have an intense interest in essences, aromas, their energetic, spiritual, chemical and healing properties and the synergy of a personalised blend. Just like Cleopatra!

One of my Flairesse Personal Blends

Finding the perfect blend to help an individual maintain their equilibrium is one of my specialties. Past life regressions? No one has asked me yet and if they do, I may just refer them to a hypnotherapist.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

Although I live in France, speak the language and love to read, I confess I don’t read nearly enough in French and admit I am holding any intent in that direction in abeyance for a while, comfortable with the certain knowledge that I will indulge the desire eventually. The last novel I bought in French was a translation of The Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel, a gift for my friend B, so she could read it in her ‘langue maternelle‘. It is serendipitous then, that she bought me ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ for Christmas, another novel with an unforgettable feline presence. We will share the experience of our respective tigers soon, the discussion sure to cross both languages.

And so to Téa Obreht’s debut novel and Orange prize winning ‘The Tiger’s Wife’.

I do enjoy traversing cultures and storytelling whose origins are unfamiliar, requiring an open mind and suspension of judgement. Obreht brings us to a land that has been split in two, where crossing a border causes suspicion and having the wrong accent or name can be dangerous.

Natalia is a young doctor who travels with her friend Zora across a hostile border to bring medicine to an orphanage. On her way she learns that her dying Grandfather has followed her and passed away in a neighbouring village. His personal effects, including his copy of ‘The Jungle Book’ that he always keeps with him are missing; Natalia takes a detour during her visit to retrieve them, enabling her family to render their funereal rituals in peace.

A  simple story, there is little depth to the living characters, we don’t spend much time with or get to know Natalia’s mother, grandmother or her travelling companion Zora. The contemporary story outline is a frame within which to retell stories and reflect on memories the grandfather shared with Natalia, presented as flashbacks.

However, this is where Obreht’s narrative really shines, when the deathless man appeared everything came into focus and I was hooked. The grandfather’s encounters and conversations with the deathless man are curious and engaging. We meet the equally legendary villagers of Galina where he grew up and in a fable-like manner, we learn how the background of these characters led to their subsequent behaviour and the role of the Tiger’s wife.

We encounter village rumour, superstition, stories and incidents where truth and the imagination make equal contribution to the version passed on or ‘dug up’ in the present day. The stories often feature a well-intended, admirable type such as Luka, the butcher’s son and Dariša the bear hunter, transformed by events which see their nature change, the humble youngster becoming a wife-beater, the caring turning brutal, the compassionate victimised.

Framing stories within another story can be distracting, particularly when we have a preference for one over the other and when the narrative voice changes; it reminds me of the Rumi scholar and novelist Elif Shafak’s book The Forty Rules of Love’ which I adored for the most part, the fable like story of the dervish Shams unfolds like an exotic journey; the contemporary story within which it was framed didn’t work so well, though I do recommend the book.

I hope more novelists succeed in crossing cultures and bringing into the light their stories, myths and family legends with creative inspiration.

Lest we forget.

Ragnarök – The End of the Gods by A.S.Byatt

Seduced by the cover and the promise of something a little different from her norm (having read ‘Possession’ and ‘The Children’s Book’), I picked this up in its beautiful hardback form and for once allowed the impulse a rare indulgence.

Part of The Myths series, which includes Margaret Atwood’s, ‘Penelopiad’, the publisher Canongate invited select writers to retell a myth in their own way and this is A.S. Byatt’s contribution.

Ragnörak is a Norse myth, the story of how things came to be and how they and world are destroyed after a series of conflicts, revenge takings, mutations and natural disasters. Byatt’s version is neither a short story or novel, more of an insight into the myth, the perspective of a thin young girl in wartime, an immersion into the created world and its end, concluding with the author’s thoughts on myths.

Yggdrasil, the imagined world

Coming to it without knowledge of the mythological background, I found myself immediately immersed in life forms that grew and transformed, creatures that came into existence, hunted, survived, wrapped their tentacles around and invaded trees, forests, lakes, streams, oceans and the planet.

Strange but alive, it is a kind of living nightmare; the young girl (who I immediately came to think of as the author as a young girl) tries to understand and make sense of the world around her, while rereading her ‘Asgard and the Gods’ stories that invade her imagination and develop her awareness and understanding of belief or disbelief as it turns out.

She did not believe the stories in ‘Asgard and the Gods’. But they were coiled like smoke in her skull, humming like dark bees in a hive.

The pages are infiltrated with images of nature in abundance, colours, textures, millions of living things and creatures, moving, sliding, digging, squirming, biting and gulping, with an omnipresent sense of foreboding. The Gods celebrate as they always do with fighting and shouting, self-destruction an ever threatening accomplice. Jörmungandr, the angry, sensuous, snake with an insatiable appetite is particularly haunting and memorable.

In her ‘Thoughts on Myths’ at the end, Byatt notes the difference between fairy tales and myths, the former giving the reader the pleasure of recognizing repeated variations on similar narrative patterns, while myths often torment, puzzling and haunting the mind who reaches into them.

We are reminded of the world we live in and the corruption, contamination, pollution and ultimate destruction of the living organism we inhabit and can only wonder if we too are destined for such a fiery end. For me, it was more of a beginning, another entry point into the mysterious and meaningful realm of ancient mythology.

Further Reading:

Peter Conrad, The Observer

M John Harrison, The Guardian

Ursula K Le Guin, Literary Review