Desert Isle Keeper
The Scent Keeper
The Scent Keeper is a marvelous piece of work. Like the bottled smells its characters covet and loathe, it carries an odor all its own. Top notes of other tales about children living on isolated islands float over the piece, but do not define it. You can smell flashes of Nim’s Island, sunbaked and golden under the surface, and the bright outrageous overtones of Stackpoole’s The Blue Lagoon; bright and sharp and without its grosser elements.
Our heroine is named Emmeline, and she has been raised to be kind to the mermaids. Growing up alone with her father, John, her world consists of gathering provisions, farming the land and having her head filled with her dad’s favorite fairytales, all of which she believes in wholeheartedly. John has a special duty – he’s a scent hunter, and he has created a machine that captures specific smells on scraps of paper. He protects those odors by sealing them away in carefully curated bottles and rarely letting Emmeline inhale them.
Emmeline is enchanted by his work. When she reaches adolescence, her keen nose drives her to become a scent hunter too, but she is unsuccessful at distilling what she captures into single-note purity and John is disappointed in her nascent abilities. As Emmeline struggles to win her father’s approval, secrets begin to mount up between them, and her belief in the perfect impregnable safety of their island home begins to waver.
When Emmeline wanders to the lagoon – something she’s been forbidden to do – her adventure reveals her father’s lies. It also results in the ruination of their home’s sustainability and the death of her beloved pet goat when she leads a bear back to their house.
Emmeline blames herself and her father equally for the disaster. As winter arrives and starvation threatens them, John’s obsession with the bottles overtakes his life to the point of threatening their safety. Hoping to shake her father out of his monomania, Emmeline throws the containers into the ocean, but instead of embracing the wider world her father drowns himself trying to save his work.
A half-wild and starving Emmeline is rescued by her neighbors, Colette and Henry, who take her to a more populous island called Secret Cove. Emmeline is astonished to learn she even has neighbors – let alone that there’s an entire, frightening and complex modern world waiting for her. Sheltered and guided through her teenage years by these patient but exasperated family friends, Emmeline tries to adjust to normalcy and school, but her ability to relate to people solely through their scents stymies her. She does make one friend, the quiet Fisher. But Fisher’s father is physically abusive, and his threats lead to a chain reaction of events that will lead Emmeline from a medium-sized island to a big city, unveiling untold secrets and revealing her life’s calling.
The Scent Keeper is breathlessly beautiful. Comprised of one part magical realism, two parts coming-of-age tale, it stays sharply focused on Emmeline’s crystal-clear point of view and manages to keep the reader interested effortlessly. The whole novel lives or dies by her voice and it’s so concrete, so good, that the reader will gladly follow her anywhere – from a high rise to a tree house.
To write a novel about scents, the memories they evoke and the way they’re used commercially, one has to be very adept at translating the invisible into concrete language. Bauermeister more than fulfills this requirement, taking us via long, poetic passages from a jar filled with perfumed paper to a mundane suburban home to corporate labs where perfumes are made and department store CEOs try to figure out the best way to manipulate their customers into buying more, pointing up the differences between the treasured and the disposable.
The book’s other themes – love, parenthood, blame and guilt – each have a turn in the sun as Emmeline tries to figure out who she is by figuring out who her parents were, and Bauermeister manages to avoid giving us easy answers. No one is entirely bad, no one is entirely good, and memories float over and between the cracks.
This is a beautiful, hauntingly multi-layered novel, and The Scent Keeper will follow its readers through their days, evoking memories and making new ones.