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Khanh the Killjoy

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer - John E. Woods

I was predisposed to love this book no matter what. I love perfumes. The fact that this book had blood and murder was just a bonus.

For me, perfumes and scents are a visceral thing. I love perfume. I have never been a visual person, my memories are composed of layers of scent.

I remember as a child, growing up in Vietnam, visiting my elderly neighbor's house and having him give me a cup of black tea infused with jasmine. Those jasmines would put the pitiful little star jasmines to shame. They were huge, each petal as wide as a fingernail. White, waxen, and filled with the most beautiful, deep, richly floral scent that even as a 5-year old I could feel was seductive without ever knowing the meaning or the existence of the word.

I remember sleeping with the window open, as the night air was filled with the scents of the flowering trees that grew outside my grandparents' house. I remember the green, earthy smell of the rice paddies where I grew up. I remember the bitter, smoky smell of the pits (so environmentally destructive, but whatever) that my neighbors dug in which they burned wood slowly for months to make a small supply of coal. Not all the smells were pleasant, of course, because hello, I did grow up on a farm, but my memories are built upon scent.

My love of perfume grew when I was a teen. I learned about perfumes, and how they were made. I learned about how flowers were distilled for their scents, an enormous quantity of raw ingredients required for a few precious drops of essential oils. I learned about making aromatic compounds in an organic chemistry lab, and that my beloved scent of jasmine (and tuberose) smelled as beautifully seductive and sexual as it did because it contained a compound called indoles, which smells like poop. Who knew!

I learned that each perfume as a top note, which quickly dissipates, the middle notes, which remains, the base notes, which lingers onto your skin like the touch of a long-gone lover. I learned that musk can smell rank, like sweaty, animalistic sex on top of a slice of Muenster cheese, or it can smell like the warmth of a mother's embrace.

There are certain scents I will never be able to wear again, because one I wore for months, while longing after a guy I thought I could never have. Another I can't smell without wincing, because it reminds me of heartbreak and tears, despite the fact that it came in a rose-colored bottle and smelled like green tea and lemons.

This book is a perfume lover's dream come true. The entire book could have had no mystery at all, and I would still read it and revel in the descriptions alone.

The Summary: Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was a bastard, born in 1738 to a syphilitic, consumptive woman working in a stinking fish stall as a gutter. After delivering the unfortunate child, she was promptly arrested for abandoning said child, and hanged.

A most auspicious beginning.

Even in the beginning, his wet nurse---paid for by the state---noticed that something was wrong with Grenouille.

“I don’t mean what’s in the diaper. His soil smells, that’s true enough. But it’s the bastard himself, he doesn’t smell.”

Babies have a smell, some stink, but underneath it, there's always a warm, cuddly smell that even a cold, heartless, child-hating woman such as I can appreciate. Grenouille has no scent.

People notice. His fellow children notice.

They could not stand the nonsmell of him. They were afraid of him.

As a teen, he sought work at a tannery in Paris. Paris is a stinking pit of hell. To Grenouille...it is heaven, with its amalgamation of scents.

It was a mixture of human and animal smells, of water and stone and ashes and leather, of soap and fresh-baked bread and eggs boiled in vinegar, of noodles and smoothly polished brass, of sage and ale and tears, of grease and soggy straw and dry straw. Thousands upon thousands of odors formed an invisible gruel that filled the street ravines, only seldom evaporating above the rooftops and never from the ground below.

Grenouille knew he was not normal, but his obsession for the pursuit of a scent never really gained traction until he committed his first murder, for love of a virgin's scent.

...the sweat of her armpits, the oil in her hair, the fishy odor of her genitals, and smelled it all with the greatest pleasure. Her sweat smelled as fresh as the sea breeze, the tallow of her hair as sweet as nut oil, her genitals were as fragrant as the bouquet of water lilies, her skin as apricot blossoms... and the harmony of all these components yielded a perfume so rich, so balanced, so magical, that every perfume that Grenouille had smelled until now, every edifice of odors that he had so playfully created within himself, seemed at once to be utterly meaningless.

The scent of a living human being that he must commit to memory, that he must capture, in the way a flower collector dries a specimen within parchment, in the way an insect lover kills and pins to a page the very thing he loves.

When she was dead he laid her on the ground among the plum pits, tore off her dress, and the stream of scent became a flood that inundated him with its fragrance. He thrust his face to her skin and swept his flared nostrils across her, from belly to breast, to neck, over her face and hair, and back to her belly, down to her genitals, to her thighs and white legs. He smelled her over from head to toe, he gathered up the last fragments of her scent under her chin, in her navel, and in the wrinkles inside her elbow.

His is an obsessive quest that will lead him to murder again, and again, and again, in this desperate search.

Grenouille knew for certain that unless he possessed this scent, his life would have no meaning.

This is a book in which the title is completely self-explanatory. It is about a murderer, and his obsessive quest for a perfect perfume. It's something I understand, in my constant search for the Holy Grail of fragrances.

But I have yet to succumb to the urge to murder. >_>