Reviewed by Debs Carr
Having chosen Kate Lord Brown's previous novel, The Beauty Chorus as one of my two favourite books of 2011, I was delighted to receive The Perfume Garden because I knew I would be in for a treat. I wasn't disappointed. Emma Temple returns home from an extended business trip several months after the death of her much-loved mother, Liberty, and the betrayal by her first love, Joe. She is lonely, grieving and pregnant with his child and when tragedy strikes she decides to leave her job as London's leading perfumier and move to the villa in the hills of Valencia that her mother has left her in her Will. Emma doesn't know what to expect but when she reaches the rundown villa untouched since Franco's forces tore through Spain in 1936, her instincts tell her that the crumbling, dilapidated house with its overgrown garden, laden with orange blossom is exactly what she now needs. As well as the house, her mother has written Emma letters, one for each special occasion, such one, 'On Perfume', another 'On Love' and so on. Emma savours these letters and opens them as and when the time arises when she needs her mother's guidance. Soon after arriving she meets Luca, a handsome, successful Spaniard whose family has lived in the area for generations. He introduces Emma to his family with mixed results. Some of the locals believe the house is cursed, although others are pleased to see the place being brought to life once again. The house holds many secrets, which certain people believe should be kept hidden.
The book has two timelines, one in Emma's present (2001) and the other starting in 1936 during the devastating Spanish Civil War where Christopher is trying to make his name as a photographer as he works with Robert Capa and his lover Gerda. He is fascinated by this charismatic couple and alongside them experiences terrors that he could have never before imagined. Freya, is exhausted and working as a nurse, she falls in love while all around her families are being ripped apart and both she and Christopher endure traumas that both find they can never forget. Neither ever wishes to return to Spain or be reminded of the choices they made seventy years before.
Kate Lord Brown doesn't describe settings, she takes the reader into the characters' world. From the exquisite surroundings and smells Emma is constantly aware of to the hidden past of the older generation and the repercussions of their actions so long ago. Before reading this book I knew almost nothing at all about the cruelty Spanish people had to endure during the civil war, but despite this there was an incredible bravery and generosity of volunteers from around the world who fought alongside them and made up the International Brigades.
As the story unfolds, Emma unsuspectingly begins to unravel Freya's past and those of her new friends, which are woven throughout this expertly plotted story and had me entranced from beginning to end. From the beginning when we read about the Falling Soldier, the famous photo taken by Robert Capa during the civil war, to the end when the secrets are revealed and everything fits into place it is an absolute treat.
There were some tearful moments, the occasionally funny moment and several 'Oh no!' moments. If I could have given this book 11/10 I would have done so.