Looking to the past

The Memory of Scent

Lisa Burkitt
The History Press Ireland €13.50
Review: Afric McGlinchey

The History Press has adapted to the market by launching an historical fiction line, beginning with The Memory of Scent. Set in 19th century bohemian Paris, this is the engrossing story of Fleur, a 16-year-old girl. She models for a Spanish artist, and waitresses. She and her mother have fallen on hard times: Fleur’s father has disappeared. Fleur retains graciousness by placing red-velvet cushions on their tattered sofa, in the pitifully dreary rooms they rent. She is haunted by the Spanish painter’s other model, Babette, whose scent of patchouli lingers after her sittings. Having glimpsed Babette once, Fleur is envious of her elegance, feeling herself, in contrast, to be “a lumpen and mottled sheath … veins throbbing like angry blue rivers and … pimpled flesh (that) should be slapped on to a butcher’s counter ready for cleaving and not presented in a gilt-edged frame.”

This is a world where “men are like magpies when it comes to stealing beauty. There it is, nice and shiny, and they make off with it until the next glittery thing catches their eye.” Women are pressured to exploit their ephemeral beauty, before they are exploited themselves. When the handsome Spanish painter is killed, Babette leaves, and Fleur fears she may have had something to do with his death. Knowing a girl can come to a bad end in Paris, Fleur recruits the dashing, wealthy George to find Babette. The unreliable first-person narration exposes Fleur’s flawed self-perception. The reader recognises her to be a spirited, beautiful woman, who shows resourcefulness, strength and intuition, and compassion for her ailing mother. Fleur is suspicious of George’s romantic interest in her. “You know how so many girls have pinned their hopes on these heady romances, only to be forgotten once the train has pulled away,” she says to her friend, Maria. The story shifts to Babette, who ends up in prison, and, later, destitute, throws herself at the mercy of a brothel madam.

Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Toulouse Lautrec all appear, and the gambling houses and brasseries are so sensually described that I felt I was wandering the streets of Paris in the late 1880s, eavesdropping on conversations, inhaling its myriad scents, dodging horse-driven cabs, and eating delicious food — one of Fleur’s customers in the café is Walrus, a lavishly overweight gourmand who takes her around the eateries of Paris to teach her about the finer points of haute cuisine. Burkitt’s structure is complex, full of secrets and intrigue. This story delves into the dynamic between the sexes, and the deeply embedded, fragmented layers that constitute a woman’s sense of self. Reminiscent, in its beautifully evocative atmosphere, of Tracy Chevalier and Susan Vreeland, The Memory of Scent rings with historical authenticity.