[29 January 2014]
Margot Berwin’s debut novel, Scent of Darkness, plays with an intriguing premise: what if a person’s scent was so overwhelmingly alluring that she became irresistible to anyone who caught a whiff of it? This is the one-sentence summation of a novel whose interest actually lies less with plot and more with character beats and tone, but nevertheless it’s the idea that the reader is left with.
An engaging enough novel, Berwin’s book never quite catches fire as much as it ought, but it’s a diverting enough read, with some unexpected twists and memorable turns of phrase. If that sounds like faint praise, well, yeah.
The plot can be summarized in a few sentences. Narrator and protagonist Eva, “from the longer and more beautiful Evangeline”, is a rather lonely and isolated child who grows close to her grandmother, Louise. Louise is a maker of scents, and seems to be embody all the vivacity and dash that is missing from Eva’s otherwise dreary, upstate-New-York life. When Louise dies, she passes on a gift to Eva that promises to change her life. Eva accepts the gift, and her life is duly changed.
To reveal more would be to unnecessarily spoil certain entertaining plot contrivances. Author Berwin wants this to be all about the characters – Eva and her boyfriend rivals Gabriel and Michael – but to in fact none of these people are terribly compelling. Eva isn’t much of a character, and she meanders through these pages rather passively: things just happen to her, although maybe that’s not a criticism so much as the author’s point. It’s hard to know, and also hard to care much. She mentions on a number of occasions that she is dull and unmemorable and that other girls are more appealing, and after a while the reader is inclined to agree with her. A jaunt to New Orleans helps liven up the setting a bit, but it’s not enough.
Supporting players (and rival leading men) Gabriel and Michael don’t fare much better. We get little sense of them as individuals, although they perform an obvious schematic function within the story: one is good one is bad, one is selfish one is self-sacrificing, and so on. For a book like this, though, more than a schematic function is needed. This is, essentially, a story that asks: which way will she jump? In order to be compelled by this question, the reader needs to have an interest in the protagonist’s options. Here, those options are either A) hard-working but not-too-interesting nice guy med student, or B) slick-talking and untrustworthy hack artist poseur. Again, it’s tough to care much either way.
Also unfortunate is the choice of New Orleans as a hoodoo-heavy shrine to occult esoterica. I’m not from NOLA, but if I were, I suspect I’d be pretty tired of its treatment as a bad-moon-rising down-on-the-bayou go-to destination for all things irrational and/or occult. Aren’t there any just regular people living in that city? I’m sure there are, but you’d never know it from reading this. This town is populated with palm readers and bourbon drinkers and psychic grandmamas living out in the swamps and down-and-out artists who nonetheless manage to pay the rent on enormous, lavender-colored mansions. This is fairly boring, and worse, lazy.
All of the above probably makes this book sound worse than it actually is. There’s nothing egregious here, there’s just nothing that’s quite as compelling as its narrator seems to think. Eva possesses a snappy and likeable voice, at least intermittently, and the proceedings get started with a deft sense of urgency and confidence: “Human beings are defenseless against scent. They can’t hide from it because they can’t see it, or touch it, or hold it. All by itself it crawls into their brains, and by the time they’re in love with it, or the person it’s coming from, it’s too late. They’re tied to it forever, through the long, tight leash of memory.”
The narrator is at her best when she shares such musings – though she hardly sounds like the sheltered, awkward post-adolescent shuffling through the rest of the plot. Things become much weaker when it comes to walking around and creating the plot mechanics and relationships of an actual story.
That said, the final act does bring some memorable moments, as Eva’s involvement with the smarmy painter resolves itself in a series of unexpected twists. Easily the strongest section of the novel, these twists provide a degree of payoff for readers who have stuck with the proceedings until that point.
Many won’t make it that far, though. Readers looking for a diverting story that doesn’t tax their attention much will probably like Scent of Darkness just fine. It’s breezy enough and goes by quick. Those who are looking for a little more, though – more substance, more wit, more grit, more depth – are encouraged to look elsewhere.