The only apparent link to Scandinavia in Isabel Costello’s brand-new second novel is a quick mention of some Lars, phenomenal in bed. But that Swedish guy doesn’t feature in the unravelling of the main character Clémentine who faces disintegration of her marriage away from such encounters. However, much more significant Nordic connection is to the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard whose words she appreciates as the best advice: ‘Life can be understood backwards but must be lived forwards.’ Geographic setting of Scent might not be Nordic, yet this stylish and elegant tale of the emotional turmoil and hidden desires crosses boundaries, appealing to human psyche everywhere.
We are familiar with stereotypes and images of Paris: the city of love, romance and yearnings for esoteric experiences. And some drama. These elements feature in consciousness of people who live in other parts of France as well; and contrast between what’s considered an ordinary life and the Parisian chic of various aspects continues. Young Clémentine dreamed of escape to this iconic city, of leaving her mundane unfulfilling existence: difficult teenage years, studies in Marseille, no idea who her father was, drudgery of cleaning houses during summer holidays when her bitter drinking mother broke an arm. She stepped in, worked hard and played hard, too, enjoying swimming pools of the empty properties. All the time longing to become someone else, sophisticated, and aware of own value which pushed her to embark on a perilous emotional journey. Now, though, at the age of 46 she has lost interest in creating bespoke perfumes for rich clients, lives in a fabulous apartment with her apparently successful husband. Her adult children moved out. As she reluctantly relishes some fame and exposure after a magazine article about her comes out, she employs Suzanne to help in her exquisite boutique, tries to concoct a unique fragrance for a new client, she comes to realisation that her life is not honest, that her marriage is dead, and the glossy sheen just a fiction.
Unexpected appearance of Racha shakes Clémentine to the core and disturbs her already shaky peace of mind. The visit brings memories from years back flooding in: not only of the bisexual love triangle, the exciting experiences with Ludo, a rich neighbour, and Racha, a stunning girl of Algerian origin, but of the accident that might have left Racha dead or injured. Most of all this reveals the emotional emptiness and yearning for the love and passion she had felt for Racha, and fear that now reappearance of her lover must equal revenge.
As the story crosses the boundaries of time and place, fleeting between Provence in 1992 and Paris of now, it also becomes a journey of uncomfortable discovery and exploration of Clémentine’s relationships with women. From the passionate physical intensity with Racha, through complicated angry sparrings with her mother, the superficial chats with Édouard’s female business contacts, to long conversations with Martha, her closest friend and an American. She’s aware of own imperfections as a mother: less close with own daughter Apolline who perfectly fits within the social norms, and favouring Bastien, an artistic rebellious young gay man discovering his path. The acknowledgment of deeply hidden feelings brings unsettling, embarrassing phase, and realisation of shortcomings and questions about life choices.
The author Isabel Costello’s cinematic vivid quality of writing is excellent as atmosphere of Paris in autumn and winter contrast with hot memories of verdant rich landscapes in the countryside. Scent is classy, intellectual and sensual. Process of understanding own desires is far from easy, marked by doubts and queries. In this context the location of the book suits the French existentialist crisis of identity perfectly. However, such emotions are not foreign to anyone who battles with past events and searches for new meaning. Modern take on this drama transcends the social backgrounds. As Clémentine says ‘I’ve been various degrees of unhappy for so long that it passed for normality’ so hopefully the next step she’s taking will present her own future minus lies and memories. Maybe she will embrace another Søren Kierkegaard’s thought: ‘The highest and most beautiful things in life are not to be heard about, nor read about, nor seen but, if one will, are to be lived’.
Scent published by Muswell Press is out now