A while back, I read an article in The Guardian about two perfume experts who fell in love and wrote a guide called ‘Perfumes: A-Z’. I made a mental note to buy the book sometime. I’m not passionate or well-versed in scent, but perhaps that was what was appealing. The descriptions of each perfume were funny, beautiful, original. Literary magic.
So, when I saw this book at Elizabeth’s Used Bookshop, a story about Luca Turin, the Italian scent-expert, I grabbed it. And glad to have done so: the story of a genius Italian scientist who develops a theory of scent which goes counter to the orthodoxy is gripping. Turin proposes that we smell by detecting a vibration, rather than the ‘shape theory’ in which something in our nose matches up with the shapes of molecules. Turin is a great personality, and it’s a story of a rebel and pioneer against a scientific establishment revealed to be sadly corrupt – not only closed but hostile to ideas that threaten their positions and authority.
What really amazed me though was the ability of Chandler Burr to render complex scientific theories into a gripping story – he grabs metaphors, rearranges sentences, repeats ideas, quotes Turin and explains what he’s saying, shows diagrams when necessary and reviews sets of theories and schools of belief. I was never great at science and page after page, I was astonished at the skill of the author to convey complicated ideas. Part of the trick is telling a great story, capturing the man as well as the ideas. But well done, Mr. Burr. I’m off to buy Perfumes A-Z now.