This is a chilling, haunting novel that has, more than anything else I’ve read recently, really loitered in my thoughts between readings.
Very much of the Ian McEwan school, in terms of its awkward, sinister unpleasantness, it is about a sad, lonely, middleaged man going on his first holiday alone after his wife has thrown him out. As he walks along the Rhine, we see flashbacks of the disintegration of his own and his parents’ marriage, as well as numerous episodes between both. Throughout, scent plays a key role. The protagonist works as a scientist who manufactures artificial smells, and during the course of the narrative the smells of violets, camphor, oranges and cigarettes become increasingly important. As do Venus Fly Traps.
There are many recurring motifs, constantly locking the character’s sad, lonely little life in a repetitive cycle of rejection and humiliation. The only character who attempts to be nice to him during the course of the text (we see no happy moments between him and his ex-wife – every recalled encounter is singed with regret, sadness and a growing understanding of his own insufficiencies) acts in a very non-normative manner, and has forgotten the protagonist’s name by the end of the text.
It is a piece about betrayal, but not in a cliched sense. Although there is much infidelity, the implicit judgement often seems to be of a negligent partner forcing their lover into this, an idea that, as a deeply sexually-repressed heterosexual male, worried me a lot.
There is a scene that the novel comes back to, over and over again, where child Futh, the lead character, witnesses the final moment of his parents’ relationship. On a staycation, down on the south coast, his father is holding forth in grating detail about the procedures and the history of local lighthouses, when his mother turns and says, ‘Do you know how much you bore me?’ This simple line, repeated in the text and thus implicitly in the head of Futh, echoes through his conscious, and through every mother-son, husband-wife relationship in the book – if we are boring, we lose the people we love. If we are boring we lose the people we love.
I’ll certainly try to be more spontaneous from now on.
Read it. It’s short, and it’s good.