Wednesday, April 3, 2013

What Does Coming of Age Smell Like?

Margot Berwin, Scent of Darkness: A Novel

Margot Berwin has made a name in Magic Realism, a subgenre seldom given its due in Anglophonic literature. In her second book, she demonstrates remarkable facility with sensory description and lush detail, traversing the interstitial places where reality and dream collide. She shows less fluency with the reality that humans, with human motivations, populate her story, so they often seem beholden to their narration.

Evangeline Lennon’s grandmother Louise, her North Star, is a perfumer. When Louise bequeaths plain Eva a phial of scent, she pens a warning: “Don’t remove the crystal stopper, Evangeline, unless you want everything in your life to change.” Who could resist? Suddenly men want her, women linger near her, and everyone thinks they own a piece of her. She becomes the beauty she always imagined. But she can’t turn it off.

We could read this novel as a parable, a dark fairy tale of misplaced desire. Scarcely a woman yet, Eva finds herself torn between stolid, loyal medical student Gabriel and heady, dangerous painter Michael (the names’ Biblical import bears mention, but nothing more). Evangeline loves both men, but only one loves her, while the other would consume her. This sets the scene for a Manichaean struggle over life and meaning.

Studious but undistinguished Eva’s story moves from quiet upstate New York to New Orleans’ Caribbean steam—an obvious but apt choice. Surrounded by history and mysticism, Eva’s scent begins transforming everybody around her. Alone in a strange city while the man who loves her is out, preparing for their future together, Evangeline’s eye wanders in directions that could destroy her. Love turns to jealousy, lust into possessiveness.

If this sounds like a gripping dark fantasy about what it means to be a woman in today’s society, you’re right. I read this book in one heady Saturday. The forces shattering Evangeline seem magical, larger than life, but represent the choice between passion and stability that all women her age must make. But Eva and her love triangle become so enrapt in their metaphoric significance that they stop being human.

As Evangeline’s story unspools first across weeks, then eventually months, moving from the Northeast to the Deep South, I couldn’t help wondering: how does she pay for groceries? It’s not just that she doesn’t work, and seems to spend numberless days first in her late grandmother’s cottage, then in a N’awlins walk-up. Rather, she doesn’t take any responsibility for her life. Eva is completely desirable, yet completely passive.

Nearly the entire story takes place in the summer and fall after Eva graduates high school. Not for nothing do we expect youth to attend college, or find work, or something. At that age, we expect them to undertake the hard journey of finding their adult roles. But Eva drifts listlessly through the Big Easy, a vessel empty of ambition or identity, seeking the right man to fill her up.

Evangeline absolutely resists introspection. She bounces through loves, seeks advice from aging mystics, and makes fleeting friendships, into all of which she invests great significance. But not once does she stop to ask: what do I want from my own life? She doesn’t even fit the bill for an unreliable narrator, because self-deception would imply some level of creativity, initiative, and identity. I know no word for Evangeline but “passenger.”

But as a passenger, Eva has a wonderful vessel in this story. Even as I got frustrated with her, I became ever more enthralled by her intricate sensory descriptions. Raised in Brooklyn’s beige tedium, a small Adirondack town and the French Quarter so overwhelm her that she cannot stop describing things. Her attention to detail brings her setting to life like a baby first discovering her larger world.

At one moment, I inhale Eva’s opulent milieu, wanting to share it with her. At the next, I want to grasp her lapels, give her a good shake, and demand she do something, anything, to seize her own destiny. Even her first tentative steps in that direction, only twenty pages from the end, feel limp. She doesn’t so much take control as choose which outside influences she will submit to.

I cannot tell readers to skip this book. I would be denying readers the pleasure of Berwin’s subtle textures and surprisingly nuanced allegory. But know going in: Evangeline willfully makes herself hard to love. She builds barriers between herself and her audience. You will reap this novel’s rich rewards only after an investment of strength to scale Evangeline’s high, wide walls.

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