Kate Grenville’s publisher wasn’t keen on her writing a book about fragrance. He would have preferred another novel from the author of Lilian’s Story (1985) and The Secret River (2005). But some stories won’t give an author any peace. This is one of them.
It begins with Grenville, as a young woman, dabbing herself with perfume before going out on a date. She wafts out the door feeling ‘sumptuous and sexy’. Half an hour later her head is pounding and she just wants to go home. It happens time and again. She wonders if she has a phobia about dating. In her thirties she begins to detect a pattern: when she uses perfume, she gets a headache. She loves perfume, but its promise of glamour comes with a higher than usual price tag. She discards all those pretty little bottles. With hindsight she wonders if part of the reason she became a writer was that ‘you don’t need to sit in a cloud of elegance if you’re alone at the desk’.
That is the last we might have heard about Grenville’s sensitivity to perfume if, in following decades, the world had not gone mad – or rather, madder – for fragrance (for which we can thank the chemists who figured out how to simulate the smell of costly essential oils, the basis of parfumerie for 4,000 years, with cheap synthetic substitutes derived from petrochemicals). By her fifties, Grenville realises that her headaches are triggered not only by perfume but also by exposure to scented products. Life becomes complicated.