Margot Berwin: Scent of Darkness (2013)


In her best-selling debut, Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire, Margot Berwin brought us to the rain forests of Mexico—to a land of shamans, spirit animals, and snake charmers—in the search for nine rare and valuable plants. Now, with her hotly anticipated second novel, Berwin takes us somewhere darker: deep into the bayous of Louisiana, to a world of fortune-tellers, soothsayers, and potent elixirs. Scent of Darkness is a magical, seductive story about the power of scent, and about what happens when a perfume renders a young woman irresistible.

Margot Berwin’s novel Scent of Darkness is her second book. It just came out in the US and I’m glad Random House offered me a copy as I hadn’t even heard of the author before and the description sounded extremely appealing. Her first novel Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire was a huge success and has been translated into 19 languages. I certainly want to read this now as well. Scent of Darkness reminded me a bit of  Sarah Addison Allen’s Garden Spells.

Scent of Darkness is pure escapism, a very sensual book that evokes the magic of perfumes and scents. I really like novels about perfumes but that wouldn’t have made me love the book. What I loved is that it is set in New Orleans. I’m aware that it’s the New Orleans tourists have in mind, and maybe quite different from the real city which is also one – if not the one – with the highest crime rate in the US. I guess there is more to New Orleans than Victorian houses with lace-patterned ironwork balconies, the French Quarter, cemeteries, hoodoo, bayous and Marie Laveau. But that’s the New Orleans that my imagination craves for and which has been captured so well by Anne Rice. So I couldn’t help loving the descriptions in Scent of Darkness, no matter how clichéd they may be.

Evangeline grew up with her mother in New York. They get along but are not close. She is close to her grand-mother Louise who is originally from Louisiana. Louise is an aromata, a master of scent-making and perfumer. At the beginning of the novel, Louise dies and leaves Evangeline her house and a small vial with a special scent, created just for her. Only it comes with a warning. If Evangeline opens the vial, her life will change completely.

Of course she opens it and it does not only alter her life but transforms the girl as well. Evangeline is an average looking girl but as soon as she wears the scent, everyone is attracted to her. Men, women and animals, follow her and want a piece of her. That’s very unsettling but also wonderful because the newly acquired scent helps her to seduce the good-looking Gabriel. She later follows him to his hometown New Orleans.

In New Orleans it becomes obvious that she has to find out what exactly was in the scent Louise has created for her and why she did it. As soon as they are in New Orleans, things get out of hand. Fortune-tellers predict tragedy, a talentless painter want’s to incorporate her into his paintings and all sorts of other things happen.

I loved two-thirds of the book but towards the end, I must say, she lost me to some extent, because it got quite weird and a bit icky. Berwin’s first novel had 400 pages and this one has only 220. My assumption is that she had to rush this book and that’s unfortunate because it had a lot more potential. I still loved it, I just didn’t find the ending and the secret behind the scent satisfying or logical but that’s maybe also a matter of personal taste.

Scent of Darkness is more than just a book about scent, it is also an exploration of beauty and attraction. Evangeline is not a beautiful woman but the scent makes her beautiful and attractive. It makes others long and yearn for her. All of a sudden, through her grandmother’s perfume, she possesses what all the other characters in the novel have in abundance – great attractiveness. She comes to hate her newly acquired desirability because she feels, people don’t lover her for herself. On the other hand, does she love the men around her for themselves, when what attracted her in the first place is their physical beauty?

If you like very colorful, evocative and descriptive books, magical realism, New Orleans, scents and a great atmosphere, then this is for you. Another great element were some stunning sentences, full of wisdom that made me think more than once “Wow, yes, that’s true”. Unfortunately I was so engrossed in the descriptions of New Orleans, I forgot to take notes or highlight any passages.

Has anyone read Hothouse Flower?

Thanks again to Random House for the review copy.

37 thoughts on “Margot Berwin: Scent of Darkness (2013)

  1. I loved Garden Spells and Addison’s other books, but this doesn’t sound like something for me. I may try her first book, though.

    Very cool that you’re getting books from publishers, Caroline!

    • Thanks, Vishy. The idea of soemone beng so attractive that people almost want to eat them up reminded me a bit of Süskind but it is in another league. Süskind’s book is far more that escapism, a real modern classic. But I still liked this. 🙂

    • Thanks, Brian. The right reader will love this book but you need to like some magical realism and the New Orleans. I just loved reading the description, it was like watching a movie.

  2. Pingback: Scent of Darkness by Margot Berwin Book Review « The Reading Date

  3. lovely review Caroline 🙂
    It sounds very interestng…I like stories that can transform people into something. I remember liking Perfume (the seriel killer book) .
    Too bad you don’t like the ending.

    Btw, I really like the cover…that’s the one that captured my intention the most

  4. I visited New Orleans a few years ago and fell in love with the town. It’s a shame that the author lost you a bit and you felt like it was rushed for publication. I’m curious as to what turned you off at the end, but not sure I really want to find out. I do miss New Orleans.

    • I have never been there but would really love to visit.
      I have a feeling I would like it very much.
      Well. the characters were a bit flat, with more pages that might have been different. My answer to Novia’s comment answers your question to some extent. 🙂

      • I spent a week in New Orleans by myself and man it was a kick. There’s so much history and so many famous writers who lived and wrote there. Seriously, you’ll love it. And the garden district is beautiful. I ended up going there since I needed to get away for a little and I just finished a novel by Anne Rice. So I said, why not New Orleans.

        Have you read Confederacy of Dunces yet. I think you mentioned last year that you got the book.

        • From everything I have heard and seen so far, I guess that I would love it. I was just wondering whether it’s still as nice after hurricane Katrina. It was hit to hard. I thought it was heartbreaking when I saw those pictures.
          I have a colection with stories by authors from New Orleans. I should review that one day. Or read it first as I’ve only read a few. I should read Confederacy of Dunces.

          • I visited after Katrina so I don’t have a benchmark to compare it to. You can see some of the damage–I think they do tours that show you more but for some reason I didn’t take one. I want to take the better half there for a getaway so there’s still hope. Confederacy is hilarious. I laughed out loud on many occasions. I’ll have to reread it for my 1001 challenge. And I love how Rice describes it. If you go, read The Witching Hour before

  5. This is a new to me author and book–I do so much book browsing I’m almost surprised sometimes when a new one slips by me! 🙂 I like the sound of this–sounds quite lush and like you I like books about perfume (as weird as that sounds…). Is it a contemporary novel or set in another period?

    • Yes, it’s contemporary. I was a bit astonished too wehn i was asked if I’d like a copy and saw her first book was translated in 19 languages. I then discovered that that first one was a huge success in Germany.
      It’s not about perfume but about plants and a reviewer commented that it contained some wonderful sentences. That’s what I enjoyed in this one too.

  6. Thank you for this review Caroline. It’s one of the first one’s I’ve seen on my new book and it’s very thrilling to read! I hope some of your readers enjoy this one as much as Hothouse. If anyone has any thoughts or questions please feel free to contact me on twitter, or post your questions here and I’ll check back. Thanks again for reading!
    Margot Berwin — Author Scent of Darkness

    • Thanks so much for visiting Margot. You have a lovely way of writing and I’m keen on reading your first book too. I’m just not so good with descriptions involving blood. I hope it was clear it was a minor problem. The descriptions and the idea, the setting and many memorable phrases made this a wonderful book.

      • No problem at all Caroline–I know blood can be an issue! I really enjoyed your review and It generated a lot of comments!!

        • It did generate comments and I’m sure some will read this novel and the first one as well. I’m usually never this quick with reading and reviewing a book but I could hardly wait to get it. It has so many elements I like and it wasn’t too sweet like some magic realism.

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