Sunday, 14 December 2014

An amewsing game of aroma-counselling 'tag': review of The Scent of Possibility by Sarah McCartney

I did a quick tot up today and I have in fact written reviews of seven perfume-themed books on Bonkers. SEVEN! I promise that that's as much a surprise to me as it is to you - I would have guessed about four tops. Maybe I am being influenced by a recent downgrade of the designation of these posts from 'review' to 'bitesized not quite reviews', which was the case for the last two: 'The Rottweiler' by Ruth Rendell because there was next to no perfume in the book(!), and 'Chanel: An Intimate Life' by Lisa Chaney, because I couldn't even finish the blessed thing. Though I guess you could say that - assuming I have an average attention span - my failure is as indicative as anything of the book's readability. But yes, it turns out that there were five proper, full length book reviews prior to that.

And here is review No 8, of a novel which was both fragrance-forward and finished fairly fast by me. That said, my review may not be appreciably longer than bitesized, for the simple reason that I couldn't figure out how to say too much about The Scent of Possibility without it acting as a spoiler. But here goes...

Sarah McCartney, as regular readers will doubtless know, is the quirky and colourful owner of 4160 Tuesdays, who has been acclaimed as one of the up-and-coming stars on the perfume scene. She was recently dubbed - in a superb article on the UK's artisan scent industry in Management Today - as a 'punk perfumer', and I have previously featured three of her creations on the blog: Time to Draw the Raffle Numbers (the scent which spurred my friend Clare on in her charity bike ride) and Tart's Knicker Drawer & Doe in the Snow, following Sarah and her husband Nick's visit to Bonkers Towers in the summer.

Sarah and Nick at a Les Senteurs event this week

Without further ado, here is the blurb from the back of the book, to give you a little taster:

'Down a cobbled mews off one of London's rare tranquil rare tranquil backstreets, people come to talk, gaze at the garden, have a nice cup of tea and a biscuit, then leave with a small blue bottle of perfume. Captured inside it is a scented memory of happy times.

What could be the harm in that?

London is a big city, but paths cross, and get all tangled up. A small misunderstanding leads to a seriously large one.


This is the novel that accidentally launched a London perfumery, 4160 Tuesdays.'

The Scent of Possibility is divided into lots of short chapters, devoted to - and toggling amongst - the various characters. All of whom sooner or later fetch up at the office - in a mews near Holborn - of a lady called Unity Cassel, who helps them solve their personal problems. The characters don't know this when they arrive, mind...The trigger for their visit is being given a business card with an appointment on it by someone (usually known to them) who has already been, found their own session helpful, and decided that the other person could do with Unity's services more than them, prompting them to pass their card along. I can best describe it as a game of aroma-counselling 'tag', for as well as having a cathartic heart-to-heart with Unity  - plus high calibre refreshments! - each 'client' takes away a little bottle of perfume which she carefully selects for them. Each bottle captures in olfactory form a past memory of a happy occasion that is specific / personal to them, the idea being that the scent will simultaneously comfort and galvanise them into tackling their issues head on.

Pied Bull Court / Galen Place ~ Source:

The fun in the book, which is very cleverly plotted, is that the stories turn out to be far more intertwined than the reader at first imagines...and that is about as much as I can say about that without really giving the card and the game away!

So instead, I will say that I devoured The Scent of Possibility in a week, which is the sign of a seriously engrossing read. Timewise only Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty has come close. I can't stress enough that this is a truly remarkable feat, because in the past year I have only managed to read a derisory seven books in total, which equates to a laughably slow rate of about seven weeks for each. So to finish Sarah's book in a fraction of that time or less is accolade indeed.

The other thing I appreciated about The Scent of Possibility is its easy-going, naturalistic style. Sarah has a sure touch in conveying the 'voice' of each of her characters, so for example, Jessica, who is a schoolgirl, speaks in a breathy stream of consciousnessness blurt, with minimal punctuation. I am pleased to report that Sarah doesn't pepper Jessica's internal conversations with 'like' or 'you know' every few words, to which young people seem inordinately prone.

The characterisations themselves are economically and deftly drawn, for example when Phoebe describes a man she was going out with as being handsome in 'that dark, Celtic, smouldery way'. Elsewhere, she mocks her own appearance in trainers, comparing herself to 'those American women in the last century who came over to the City and went to work in tea-coloured tights, Burberry macks and big hair, with a pair of bright white Reeboks at the bottom, to make them look like they worked hard and played hard and all that rubbish.'

Five of the scents featured in the book are from the current range

Oh, and a quick word on grammar: Sarah loves the semi-colon, and though I haven't conducted a poll as such, I am pretty sure she favours its use over the dash by quite some margin. The semi-colon is a bit of an endangered species in modern usage - and is even considered archaic in some quarters - so I rather warmed to that touch, says she, without actually using one...;)

There is also a fair bit of gentle humour and wry observations of life's foibles, together with some pretty helpful relationship advice along the way. I could very easily imagine Suzi Godson of The Times coming up with the same diagnoses of these familiar - and familial - problems.  Yes, the book is part agony aunt column, part perfume consultation-stroke-aromatherapy session, and part soap opera-cum-thriller. In short, The Scent of Possibility has something for everyone...except a shedload of dashes, obviously. Though it does have a shed.

NB In the spirit of full disclosure, I bought my own copy of The Scent of Possibility - that's it in Sarah's hand, in fact! - before or after she autographed it for me.


odiferess said...

I haven't finished my copy yet, some late nights halted me. I must say though that I it is quite quite brilliant.
I see Unity as Sarah. Every time someone visits I think about how much of her is in the character. In real life she has that 'I'll sort you out' aura that makes you feel very easy and rather confessional!
Have you been visualising Sarah?

Vanessa said...

Hi Odiferess,

Glad you like the book too - it is enjoyable on so many levels. I bought two copies in fact, and the friend I gave the other one to - only on Wednesday! - has finished hers already and wrote:

"I've just finished Sarah McCartney's novel and really, really enjoyed it. (I kept finding myself wishing Unity were a real person.)"

So in the light of your comment, maybe Unity is Sarah? I must admit that I didn't visualise her at the time - not in person - but I do agree that she would dispense just such practical, common sense advice...

Asali said...

Despite your glowing review, I must confess that I am as bad at reading novels at the moment as it seems you have been. I am not proud of it, but it's how it is. You do make it sound like this one could take me out of the rut, though :-) And there's the added bonus that every time you mention Sarah I keep thinking that I must get to try her perfumes at some point (soon).

Tara said...

Sounds like a great read and I love novels set in London. The intertwining stories are also appealing.

Unfortunately I can't bring myself to read books now so I hope it comes out on Kindle at some point.

Anonymous said...

This book sounds like a lot of fun, Bonks.

I think Sarah worked for Lush as "Auntie Pamela", giving sage advice about Lush products and life problems in the Lush Times catalogue, so this Unity character seems a reasonable fit, doesn't it?

I wonder whether you'd enjoy the Tony Macauley books, which begin with his role as the only pacifist paperboy in the Upper Shankill Road in the seventies? Charming and laugh-out-loud and poignant. I have no association with him but Sprog and I are reading them and they're great, so they are! ("Paperboy"; "Bread Boy"; and "All Growed Up".)

cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

Vanessa said...

Hi Asali,

What is your lack of reading novels down to, do you suppose? And do you mean just novels, or reading generally? This book really is very easy to get on with, as you can tell by my friend also finishing it in record time! Do you have access to 4160 Tuesdays' scents over there? Sorry for all the questions!

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

You would enjoy the London setting, and the tricksy plot. I hope Sarah brings it out on Kindle sometime so you can read it in that format.

Vanessa said...

Hi Anna,

I knew Sarah worked at Lush, but was not aware of her agony aunt role - in the light of this news, the fit between her and Unity seems ever more likely...;)

Tony Macauley is a new name to me, but I am loving The Fall at the moment, and usually jump at any book or play set in Norn Iron. Will check him out, and thanks for the tip off. Very kind, so you are!

Unknown said...

TThat sounds like a perfect holiday read. Will investigate kindle options.

Asali said...

Oh, I suppose I could order samples online, but since we have no niche perfumes here, that goes for all brands, which again means that I only rarely buy samples from brands I don't know at all. Even if it's 'only' samples, it all adds up.
Long story about reading (you'll get it another time ;-) ) but yes, mainly fiction. I can do the internet just fine :-)

Anonymous said...

Will keep an eye out for it - it's just about time for me to start my holiday book run. Why, it's almost as bad to run out of books as it is for food...AnnieA

Vanessa said...

Hi Asali,

No niche perfumes in Denmark? Goodness, I wouldn't have thought that. Stockholm has a few niche stores, for example, so I would have imagined you would also be pretty well served. I agree that blind buying samples gets expensive. I spent the first year of two of this hobby putting in a monthly order with The Perfumed Court, as it was then, and it did mount up.

I look forward to hearing the long story some time!

Vanessa said...

Hi Sabine,

Oh, do let Tara know if you find it in a Kindle option, as that is her preference too.

And I hope you enjoy the rest of Apple Tree Yard, if 'enjoy' is the right word, so harrowing is the tale!

Vanessa said...

Hi AnnieA,

Indeed it is! I never get close to having that problem, as there is a tottering tsundoku by my bed at all times!

Suzanne said...

Vanessa, it's nice to hear of a perfume novel that's filled with a sense of whimsy. Sarah's book sounds charming, fun and very well-written (it's no easy thing to weave various narrative strands together and have various plotlines converge). Very impressive, too, that the novel is written by a perfumer. I haven't tried her creations yet, but hearing that Sarah is also a novelist gives me more impetus to seek them out. Glad you wrote this book review, you little book reviewer, you!! ;-)

Vanessa said...

Hi Suzanne,

LOL at your calling me a 'little book reviewer'! Sheer force of numbers would suggest as much, though I didn't realise it till this post. ;)

Yes, I was most impressed at the plotting - I really didn't twig to the full extent of the convergence until I was meant to, which Sarah was pleased to hear. Obviously as a writer you must worry that the clues are too obvious, so I think she pulled off that aspect very well.

Andrea, Espanola, NM said...

Bought from Kindle this week, read it in 24 hours. A lighthearted, happy read. Thanks for the review. You're putting travel ideas in my head....
London is a haul from New Mexico. Enjoy your blog...Happy Holidays.

Vanessa said...

Hi Andrea,

Thanks for dropping by - that's great news that the book is available on Kindle, and I will mention it to Sabine and Tara above. London is indeed a haul from New Mexico, but worth a visit if you ever get the chance. Happy Holidays to you too!

Ingeborg said...

I have Journal d'un Parfumeur, Les Parfums (E.Feydeau) and Coming to My Senses lined up for the holidays, but a lighthearted book which is also well-written should be possible to read later during weeks with a heavier work load. So I will put Sarah's book on my list of books I want to read.

Vanessa said...

Hi Ingeborg,

I adored Coming to my Senses - it is one of the seven books I have reviewed on Bonkers - so you have a treat in store there. I have yet to catch up with the first book you mention. Sarah's book is a light read, so should be easy to slot in anytime. ;)