St Martin’s Press, NY 2019
The Scent Keeper is the fourth novel of Seattle based writer Erica Bauermeister. I first met her writing with The School of Essential Ingredients, her first novel, deservedly a best seller. This fourth is equally endowed with the capacity to move and hold us, to powerfully evoke a sense of place.
The island upon which we start this story with the child Emmeline, the voice of the book, and her father is remote and mystical, fairy tale like. Stories of fairies and mermaids along with the mystery of a collection of scents in bottles and a machine that creates them carry us gently along until a sudden cataclysmic attack by a bear shatters the peace of the place and Emmeline’s sense of safety and sureness. More dark and dire events follow and Emmeline is finally cast onto the Mainland and taken in by the loving Henry and Colette.
Here she must adapt to the first of the new worlds she meets. She is for the first time with other people. She grapples with the always difficult process of being an outsider in a school, and not only that, she is an outsider who understands the world through her sense of smell – and hence is dubbed ‘weird’. She teams up inevitably with the other outsider, Fisher, whose demons she gradually comes to understand – partly.
Much of what follows is a quest story – the quest to find Fisher, her mother, the secret of her father’ story and the relationship between her parents, the path to understanding herself and those who care for her, the reasons people stay or leave. It is by no means a sugar-coated tale. There is much violence and darkness here but we luxuriate nevertheless in Erica Bauermeister’s masterful language, her elegant turn of phrase and her painterly skill in evoking place.
This is a book that unfolds through the medium of smell. So much of what happens and is learnt is played out in the realm of fragrance, that most primitive sense that binds us to our animal selves.
Finally, we are left with a sense of hopefulness – thankfully not everything is resolved , as we would always wish in a good read – there must be more to contemplate, things not yet said or done by our book people. This is a book for people who love not just the art of story telling, but words themselves and the magic they weave when in good hands.