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.