High in the hills of Valencia, a forgotten house guards its secrets.
Untouched since Franco’s forces tore through Spain in 1936, the whitewashed walls have crumbled, the garden grown wild.
Emma Temple is the first to unlock its doors in seventy years. Guided by a series of letters and a key bequeathed in her mother’s will, she has left her job as London’s leading perfumier to restore this dilapidated villa to its former glory. It is the perfect retreat: a wilderness redolent with strange and exotic scents. But for her grandmother, Freya, a British nurse who stayed there during Spain’s devastating civil war, Emma’s new home evokes terrible memories.
As the house begins to give up its secrets, Emma is drawn deeper into a story of crushed idealism, of lost love, and of families ripped apart by war.
It is one thing letting go of the past. What if the past won’t let go of you?
The first time I became aware of Kate Lord Brown was when I read Liz’s review for her last book The Beauty Chorus. That story sounded amazing and since I’ve been fascinated by WWII since I was a little girl and my dad read me books set in that era, it seemed like something I’d love. While I still need to get my hands on a copy of The Beauty Chorus, when I was looking through Corvus’ catalogue for my anticipated reads posts for the first half of this year, my eye was immediately caught by Lord Brown’s name when I came to The Perfume Garden. The subject of this book interested me at once, as it’s a time very unfamiliar to me. Even in secondary school history the Spanish Civil War was part of the larger picture of the run up to WWII and we never got further than dates and the fact that there were foreigners fighting for both sides. And while I still don’t know much beyond the basics for the political reasons for the conflict, I have learnt more about what it was like for the people involved.
The Perfume Garden switches between two timelines. One is set in Civil War Spain and tells the story of Freya, Charles and Rosa, while the other is set around and just after 9/11 and tells Emma’s story as she deals with some devastating losses and rebuilds her life. With alternating storylines, or in this case timelines, often one of the storylines grabs me more than the other and I find myself reading through the less-immersive one to get to the one that’s more compelling to me; not so with The Perfume Garden. Both timelines are equally grabbing and I enjoyed them both, but for very different reasons. Emma’s story is one of loss and love and of finding yourself again after having your feet swept from underneath you. Her grief at not just the loss of her mother, but the simultaneous break-up with her partner of ten years, who she thought was the love of her life and his later demise in the attack on the Twin Towers, is raw and I felt if it hadn’t been for her baby and the house in Valencia, Emma would have been completely at sea. As it is, the house grounds her and keeps her going. The love story between Emma and Luca is lovely and convincingly done. You feel that they both feel that the other is a new chance at happiness, but the fear of getting hurt again is keeping them apart. I loved this slow dance which ended in a stunning finale. However, Emma doesn’t just fall in love with Luca, she falls in love with Valencia and this love story is rendered as vividly as the former. As a perfumier, Emma thinks in scents and this aids in creating the vivid descriptions of her surroundings, you can almost smell the flowers in the garden and taste the food they eat at the De Santangel family finca.
Freya’s story is one that is far darker, as it is set during the Civil War. Freya volunteers as a nurse and sees some awful things, as does her brother Charles who is embedded as a journalist with the Republicans. Lord Brown manages to conjure up the almost claustrophobic feeling the Republicans are put through as they need to be always on their guard against being caught by the Nationalists, whether during battle or through being denounced. The latter is something that is shown largely through Rosa’s story. But despite all the harshness and horror of the Civil War, Lord Brown also puts in some light notes of hope, such as Freya’s romance with a Canadian doctor and Charles’ camaraderie with the journalists and photographers the cover the Civil War, among whom are Ernest Hemingway and Robert Capa. These notes of hope are important in a story, which we know won’t end well—in the end, the revolutionaries are beaten and Franco remained in totalitarian power for another thirty-five years.
The Perfume Garden tells very different stories of motherhood. I loved the portrayal of the relationship between Emma and Libby, which was loving and one between equals, where Libby gave Emma the freedom to be as successful as she could be. We don’t see much of Freya as a mother to Libby, other than as sense that Freya has always been protective of Libby and she’s done everything to keep her safe. All three women were single mothers, though perhaps only Libby was so by choice. But for both Freya and Emma, their daughters are anchors, a reason to live and to live well.
Beyond the mother-daughter and romantic relationships we see, there are other bonds that are as important and fulfilling. There is the deep friendship between Rosa, Freya and Macu, which forms in the hardest of circumstance, but is almost unconditional and in the end life-saving. I particularly loved Charles and the sibling bond between Charles and Freya. In both timelines you can see how much they love each other and I loved their rather wry exchanges. Their bond is unbreakable even when hurtful secrets are revealed and lies discovered. There is a lot of love in The Perfume Garden, love in many guises, but it is love that moves the characters in this book, whether for good or for bad.
The house in Valencia and its mysterious connection to the Temple family is at the heart of the novel. It is there that The Perfume Garden comes to life and where it is at its most vivid, both during the Civil War and in the early years of this century. I loved this book, its fabulous characterisations and indulgent, atmospheric writing. I could smell and taste Spain while reading its pages and I was sad to close the book; sad to leave the characters behind, but satisfied at the ending. The Perfume Garden is a historical fiction novel set in an interesting and uncommonly cruel era, with both a mystery to solve and a dash of romance. The book is published by Corvus and will be released in the UK on June 1st. I highly recommend you give it a chance. Me, I’ll be putting The Beauty Chorus on my birthday wish list. This was my first encounter with Kate Lord Brown’s writing, but it surely won’t be my last!
This book was provided for review by the author.