Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Retro Reading - The Perfume

Clearly from a young age, way before I owned a snake or starting wearing perfume, I was drawn to both, because I remember very clearly being fascinated by this book cover when I first saw it.

Caroline B Cooney wrote a lot of my favourite Point Horror books, so it seemed only fair I give at least one a re-read and see how it stands up. And since I now own a snake and make perfume, THE PERFUME felt like an excellent choice.

When fifteen-year-old Dove Daniel’s friends discover the new perfume called Venom, they become infatuated. They have Obsession and Poison; now they simply must have Venom. When they discover it’s available at Dry Ice, the coolest store in the local mall, they rush over after school. But to Dove, Venom seems inexplicably terrifying, as does the store that carries it. If she breathes in its potent scent, she is sure something terrible will happen. At first whiff, she senses something primitive and dark. Once she’s inhaled the scent, she begins to feel something . . . different . . . and her heart beats in double time. What has Venom’s bite awakened inside her?

I don't really remember how I felt about Dove when I read this book as a teenager, but as an adult I like her a lot. She's introverted, anxious (checks under her bed every night for monsters, and has to carry her address around in her purse because she forgets where she lives), and sweet. She longs for a life full of colour and romance, but is afraid to break out of her orderly, grey existence. But once the mysterious perfume, Venom, comes into her life, everything changes as she's possessed by the spirit of an ancient evil...or her twin who died in the womb. One of the two.

It's never made clear whether Wing (our villain) really is Dove's unborn twin or something more supernatural, and that annoyed me. Sometimes Wing seems like an impulsive teenage girl, unable to grasp the consequences of her actions when she takes charge of Dove's body, and sometimes both she and Dove think as if Wing is something ancient and genuinely Evil with a capital E. There's no resolution on that, so you're left to draw your own conclusions, but frankly I would have liked to be lead one way or the other by the end of the book.

This is largely because there is another explanation for Dove's sudden "double personality," one that does play a key role in the plot, and that is that Dove is having a breakdown. Makes sense, right? This quiet, good girl suddenly starts swearing at her parents, being cruel to her friends, dressing differently, acting differently, and uh...trying to murder people. She has conversations with herself in different voices, talks about finding victims and insists on being referred to as Wing. Wouldn't you think she was undergoing a psychotic break? And indeed, Dove's parents do think this, and Dove is institutionalized for "a rest" towards the end of the book.

When I was a teenager, I didn't really appreciate that this is the true horror of THE PERFUME. Not that an evil perfume has unlocked an evil being inside Dove, but that you can lose control of your mind to the point where your freedom is taken away from you. That Dove could well be suffering a psychotic break, that Wing could easily be a figment of her imagination, and that Dove doesn't even realise this. The set-up is there - Dove is shown to be anxious and neurotic before the events of the book kick in (bad memory, checking under the bed for monsters, deciding not to eat porridge with raisins because her stomach will be "full of eyes"). And clearly from an outside perspective, Dove's sudden and radical change in behaviour fits a lot of the symptoms of a psychotic break (delusions, violent outbursts, inability to tell reality from fantasy).

So yeah, re-reading this book as an adult, with a greater understanding of mental health, psychosis, depression, and anxiety, I felt there was a missed opportunity with this book. Defining Wing one way or the other could have added a great depth to THE PERFUME. It's still creepy as fuck, don't get me wrong, but I felt there were some "what ifs" left to explore. The ending doesn't help you decide whether Wing is a vanished twin, an evil apparition, or a figment of Dove's imagination, because at the end, Dove simply decides to "cast Wing out," which she does by...dancing in a fountain and yelling "get out!" pretty much.

That said, I still enjoyed revisiting it, and I know not every book should be an Issues Book, nor would I want them to be. The writing is sparse but graceful, and there are some cool touches, like the shop where Dove buys Venom being gone when she tries to go back. "It served its purpose," Wing tells her (I guess this adds weight to the "Wing is an Evil Ancient Spirit" theory). I am reminded that Cooney wrote another Point Horror about evil twins, and now I want to re-read that and do a compare-and-contrast. Maybe we'll get to the bottom of the eternal question: is one twin always destined to be evil?

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