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How often have you smelled a particular perfume, a bonfire or shoe polish and been instantly transported back to an earlier time in your life? Our sense of smell is the most evocative for memory and this is what is at the heart of MJ Rose’s The Book of Lost Fragrances.
Brother and sister Robbie & Jac L’Etoile are the ancestors of a perfumer who opened a shop in Paris in the early eighteenth century. The shop is still there, but the business is in financial difficulty and Jac, the “nose” of the family, has negotiated the sale of two of their signature scents in order to balance the books. She has nothing to do with the running of the business; Jac is a woman who debunks myths for a living in print and in her television show. Her brother Robbie, a Buddhist and strong believer in reincarnation, wants to keep the company intact but has refused to sell some broken shards of ancient Egyptian pottery in order to save the firm. He believes that the family myth – that the L’Etoile family are the keepers of Cleopatra’s lost book of fragrances – is true and that the traces of perfume found on the pottery shards is designed to evoke memory. Nothing unusual there you might think, but the memories this scent evokes are those of past lives. He wants to give the shards to the Dalai Llama as proof that reincarnation is real, thus helping the cause of Tibet to be free from China.
The broken pottery is also of interest to a psychiatrist who believes in past life regression as a treatment for young children who have suffered trauma, and by the Chinese government thru the Triads in order to keep Tibet under their control. As if this wasn’t enough intrigue, a new Panchen Llama who was abducted by the Chinese as a boy and (unsuccessfully) brainwashed, is on a mission to get to the Dalai Llama in Paris and fulfill his ordained destiny.
Told mainly from the viewpoint of Jac and flashbacks to ancient Egypt and revolutionary Paris, Rose handles this sometimes complicated plot with panache. She has obviously done her research but uses it skillfully without shoving it onto the reader at every opportunity. The main characters are likable and the author spends time developing them as the story moves forward. Even the antagonists are given some backstory to make them a little more sympathetic. The only character which didn’t quite gel with me was that of Malachai, the regression therapist who, coincidentally, treated Jac after her mother killed herself.
This book contains romance, thrills, history and myth in a thoroughly entertaining mix and I would highly recommend The Book of Lost Fragrances.