Scented by Laurence Fearnley
In ‘Scented’, the latest novel by Laurence Fearnley, we meet a woman, Sian, on a search for her own identity. When Sian loses her job as a lecturer in the American Studies department, she finds herself adrift. While this might bring to mind an ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ style-scenario, ‘Scented’ is very different to that. Sian’s search for identify is reflective of her unique passion – scent – and the novel charts her construction of herself as a perfume. It begins with her ‘base notes’, taking us into her childhood with her grandparents and their gritty house where the air is damp and smells of gas and blood and bone, through to her heart notes – the future.
As well as the power of scent, this is a novel exploring what it is to be invisible. Sian sits outside society’s constructions of ‘the norm’ – she’s middle aged, without children, a partner or even really friends outside of colleagues, and her only family are so distance she barely speaks to them. When she loses her job, the one thing that gives her life outward direction, she’s in a quiet sort of freefall.
Fearnley has made a brave and difficult choice in creating a narrator that is untethered to anything except her love of perfume. When Sian does get to human connection it is always severed, which is one of the novel’s more perplexing narrative choices. It’s a challenge as a reader to care very deeply about Sian without much tethering her to the world, or us.
What does hold your attention in this novel is the power of quality writing, and a journey into scent that is fascinating. Fearnely has a keen ability to describe scents and it’s absorbing reading how Sian constructs them to represent books, people, even places. These perfumes are not all to be worn, in fact some are awful, but they are all very interestingly evoked.
The novel’s strength is the way it asks you to consider the power of scent, and is better reading if you have a knowledge of perfumes. Like Fearnley’s 2016 novel, ‘The Quiet Spectacular’, there is some beautiful, truthful writing. But while ‘Scented’ is an interesting exploration of scent and memory, the meandering plot means it’s overall lacking in punch.
Reviewer: Heidi North
Penguin NZ, RRP: $38.00