The beauty of Amanda Hampson’s literature lies with her ability to observe and describe in such detail that all senses are ignited. In The French Perfumer, Hampson introduces the reader to Iris Turner’s journal which takes us to the South of France in April of 1956.
A woman in her mid-thirties, Iris has dedicated seventeen years of her life to the civil service and leads a mundane existence encircled by loneliness and a growing sense of despair. Encouraged by a colleague to take up a daunting opportunity, she applies for a mysterious job in the French Riviera as a live-in typist, leaving the dull familiarity of London for an experience that will change her life in ways she would never expect.
Petrified, she arrives at the Villa Rousseau where she is to stay and work, employed by the perplexing Vivian Brooke, who provides Iris with scant detail regarding the secretarial role, and who is both glamorously charming and silently sceptical. Iris is told she is to work for Vivian’s brother, Hammond Brooke, although there is no talk about the nature of the work or any explicit instructions at all for that matter.
It is not long before Iris realises there are many secrets and tales of deception hidden in the Villa and the guests who occupy it, and her role becomes clearer as the unnerving truths begin to present themselves.
Hampson’s witty observations of the eccentric characters vividly depict post-war France and form a paradoxical world that lies in the past yet seems almost graspable. Iris Turner is the amicable lens that we view this world through, and the experiences she describes are as heart-warming as they are heartbreaking.
Page after page, I noticed that I could envision the Villa Rousseau, its unconventional guests and their glamorous lives owing to Hampson’s unique narration through scent; each person, event, and scene is accompanied by a verbal rainbow of fragrances so precisely written that I could feel my senses tingling.
It is a fitting accompaniment to the character of Hammond Brooke, The French Perfumer himself. Iris’ relationship to Brooke is unsteady and tense initially and she finds herself working for a blind man with little willingness to cooperate.
Nevertheless, the story develops and her role as his employee gains clarity, as she becomes central to assisting the perfumer to work his magic once again. They become close confidants and share a friendship that sees him re-ignite his talent one final time.
This historical novel uncovers some dark truths entangled in the lives of a French aristocratic family, yet manages to capture so delicately the beauty in the character’s unconventional relationships while delighting readers with a vividly evocative and perfumed world.