Siân Rees is a senior lecturer in American Studies at the University of Auckland, supported by the head of her department, Archer Hall, and used to picking up the slack for her ambitious young colleague, Jerome Roy. She lives alone, “I preferred living alone to compliance with another person”, her passions being getting lost in research and capturing the essences of people and places in perfumes. But when the University’s humanities departments are restructured, Siân is labelled ‘redundant’ and her world and her confidence disintegrate.
Siân sets out to document her own ‘base notes’, ‘heart notes’ and ‘top notes’ in order to take stock and get a grip on who she is, now that her identity as a “smart, professional, financially independent middle-aged woman” has gone. She intends to create a perfume that is her “signature scent”, a perfume to make her complete again.
The reader accompanies Siân on her journey, learns a lot about perfume making, about the cruelties of heartless restructuring processes and the brutality of an ageist and sexist labour market, and becomes totally immersed in Siân’s predicament – as Siân realises that not only is she professionally adrift, she has become – and maybe always has been – unmoored in her birth country.
Scented, as you would expect, is totally evocative as it wends its olfactory way through Siân’s story – the scents of her youth were the ones I grew up with – Bronnley, Veet-O, Morny, Lenthéric Tweed … Fearnley’s descriptions of the elements of the scents – both pleasant (“a night garden following a storm”) and unpleasant (“dog shit on the sole of shoe”) – are so textured, you start being amazed along with her, that scents are not more of an active part of human activities. But, as Siân goes longer and longer without finding work, she falters, she becomes suspicious of all around her, and feels more and more isolated.
Siân’s loss of status erodes her self-confidence and her sense of belonging. She finds out who she can trust and who not, but also that her judgments might be skewed by her experiences. She becomes estranged from the ‘young’, no longer in relation to them as a lecturer – encountering a group of students protesting to support the humanities, she finds their silent protest reminds her of “passive-aggressive sulking teenagers.” Not that she is unsympathetic to their cause, fearing “the only people left will be the ones who communicate in bullet points.”
A ghastly piece of online invasion leads to Siân reciting a litany of abuse at the hands of men, each awful but nothing unusual, yet quite devastating when all listed together. But maybe more revealing is her realising: “I was born in New Zealand, had lived here all my life and valued notions of the unspoilt landscape, the bush and sea, and yet, when tested, my instincts and preferences sent me sniffing back to Britain.”
Scented is sad and haunting, and yet Siân’s experiences are cathartic – she has to get to the basic notes of her experiences to build up a perfume, so maybe after her life has fallen apart, she will find a solid base on which to build a more meaningful life. I just loved this book – read it and see what you think.