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Evocative Fairytale Portrayal of New Orleans

  • Aug 19, 2013
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Rating:
+3
In her novel "Scent of Darkness," author Margot Berwin conjures up a story with as much simplicity and depth as a magical spell as she relates the coming of age of her main character and narrator using evocative language and fast-paced action that suggests the seductive rhythm of a fairy tale. Ever since childhood, Evangeline simmers in averageness defined by her single mother's nonchalance and the quirky strength of her grandmother, a woman of the Louisiana bayou country. Fascinated by her grandmother's uncanny and insightful ability to create psyche-altering perfume out of herbs and essential oils and her odd penchant for saving her granddaughter's blood, Evangeline is not at all surprised that her grandmother creates for her a luxurious scent that she cautions will change her life in ways she could never imagine.

As in all such fairy tales, the heroine disregards the elder's warning and uses the perfume. What follows is a mystical journey that may redefine your perception of what beauty and desire are and how the senses can well overrule commonsense. At first, it seems Evangeline revels in her newly found celebrity. Of course, this, like all other things, loses its novelty and fascination. Evangeline finds herself caught between her own desire for danger and stability; what seems absorbing and coveted may just be the foolish desire of a headstrong girl. Readers can guess at the ending in the same way that they already know the ending of a fairy tale. However, it is the way the Berwin gets you to the ending that makes the difference.

Berwin's prose is mesmerizing. The total reading time of this 220 page book took only a few hours to read. Slow at first, Evangeline's introduction of the upstate New York town of Cyril, her grandmother's oddness and the macabre rules and regulations that are a part of her life in her grandmother's home make for somber reading. Berwin holds out the promise of her elixir-like perfume like a beacon; the reader is spurred on and is not disappointed once Evangeline anoints herself with the desire for new life. Nonetheless, it is Berwin's New Orleans sequence that cements her power to evoke. Instead of voodoo, zydeco and alligators, Berwin portrays the Crescent City with a realness that she cloaks with the fantasy element of her fairy tale. The reader can feel the steam rising from the sidewalks of the French Quarter, mingling with the urban smells of restaurants, carriage horses and an older dream world. Add to that the scent of jasmine, rose, leather and fire--the notes of the perfume that becomes intrinsic to Evangeline's nature and soul and then turn up the heat--90 plus degrees of summer swelter and 99% humidity. The result? Surreality. Take a walk down Magazine Street with its painted houses and shabby chic storefronts. Imagine the characters--the artists, the musicians, the chefs and the wannabes--lazing about, stopping for strong coffee in spite of the heat. Berwin allows the reader to feel the vibe of the City. She does this very well. (Except for the diner on Magazine--diners, except for Dot's, really do not exist in New Orleans. Maybe a small cottage or converted bank would make a good coffee/short order restaurant--but a diner? That's a New York fantasy.)

Bottom line? "Scent of Darkness" is an urban fairy tale that tells the coming of age of an unsure young girl. Caught between two men that epitomize different aspects of her own desire, she must figure out with the help of her commonsense and a young New Orleanean boy named Levon what is important to her own discovery of herself. Berwin does an excellent job of presenting a New Orleans that is halfway between the stuff of dreams and nightmares. Recommended.
Diana Faillace Von Behren
"reneofc"

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About the reviewer
Diana Faillace Von Behren ()
Ranked #178
I like just about anything. My curiosity tends to be insatiable--I love the "finding out" and the "ah-ha" moments.      Usually I review a book or film with the … more
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Wiki

Berwin follows Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire (2009) with a tale about the mysterious and luscious world of the aromata, professional perfume makers. Evangeline, Eva for short, loves spending the summer with her aromata grandmother, Louise, who works in a closed, empty room, trying to capture the scent of things like joy or shadows. Sometimes she is even successful in these efforts, but she will never share her secrets. When she dies, Louise leaves her house to 18-year-old Eva, who finds a handsome local med student, Gabriel, studying in the kitchen. As they explore the rambling house together, Eva grows more enamored of Gabriel every day. He finally convinces her to go into Louise’s sanctuary, the room where she made her scents, where Eva finds a gift for herself, a scent all her own. But a note warns her that if she removes the stopper, everything will change. The unexpected soon follows. Berwin’s prose is poetic and measured, and her enchanting novel will leave readers searching for a scent of their own. --Amber Peckham
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