High in the hills of Valencia, a forgotten house guards its secrets. Untouched since Franco's forces tore through Spain in 1936, the whitewashed walls have crumbled, the garden, laden with orange blossom, grown wild. Emma Temple is the first to unlock its doors in seventy years. Guided by a series of letters and a key bequeathed in her mother's will, she has left her job as London's leading perfumier to restore this dilapidated villa to its former glory. It is the perfect retreat: a wilderness redolent with strange and exotic scents, heavy with the colours and sounds of a foreign time. But for her grandmother, Freya, a British nurse who stayed here during Spain's devastating civil war, Emma's new home evokes terrible memories. As the house begins to give up its secrets, Emma is drawn deeper into Freya's story: one of crushed idealism, lost love, and families ripped apart by war. She soon realises it is one thing letting go of the past, but another when it won't let go of you.
I think I may have found one of my favourite books of 2012 in Kate Lord Brown's The Perfume Garden. I read it for Historical Tapestry, loved it and had a hard time writing my review because it seemed I kept on writing and writing. I ended up heavily editing my review but I kept thinking about the book and what I wanted to say. What follows is an adapted and expanded version of that review.
I have always been interested in historical fiction! While nowadays I read more British historical fiction, while I was growing up my readings where about Portuguese and Spanish history. Spain is our next door neighbour, the Spanish, as we like to call them are nuestros hermanos, our brothers, and in fact it is impossible to read about one country's history without touching the other. The similarities go on to the point where we both had a right wing dictatorship during most of the 20th century. Ours ended with a revolution and theirs with a peaceful transition but if I was to say what was the main difference between us it would be that Spain had a Civil War and we didn't.
I don't know when my interest in that particular period in Spain started, maybe by reading some of Hemingway’s books, maybe by seeing and hearing about Frank Capra's photographs... it isn't your usual historical fiction setting, that is for sure. When I found out that it was going to be the background of this book I immediately put it on my WL.
And now here I am looking at the computer screen and typing away this review and there are so many things on my mind that it is difficult to decide where to start... I guess I could start by saying that I loved reading this story! It is not an easy, light read but it is an evocative and very satisfying read and when I finally closed the book all I could think about was how I wanted to start researching the period, how I wanted to find the people mentioned and what their fate was... But don't you go on thinking that this is a history book. In fact it is far from it. But Kate Lord Brown manages to give so many details and include so many real people in the story that I found myself eager to confirm what was real or not and to find out more about the people mentioned.
There are two stories in The Perfume Garden. The story of Emma, set in 2001, and the story of Freya (Emma's grandmother), Rosa and Macu, set in 1937. Emma is going through a difficult period in her life. She separated from her long term boyfriend after finding out that he was cheating on her with a close friend and business partner. Her late mother left her company to the three of them and they are planning to sell it. To make matters worse when her mother died Emma and Joe gave in to the unresolved feelings between them and Emma is now pregnant. When Joe is killed on 9/11 Emma feels it is time to make a fresh start and prepare to receive her baby. Armed with a box of letters that her mother wrote to be opened after her death she decides to move to Spain, to Valencia, where her mother left her a house, the Vila del Valle.
In 1937 Freya and her brother Charles are in Spain to help fight fascism. She is a nurse caring for the wounded on the Republican side and he is a photographer and a soldier. It's through their eyes that we see many of the famous characters of the time: Hemingway, Capra, Gerda Taro... all fascinating people who were risking their lives fighting for a cause they believed in and to tell the world what was happening in Spain. In fact some of them lost their lives doing just that... Rosa is Jordi del Valle's girlfriend, she has fought with him in Madrid for the Republican side but she is pregnant and he decides to take her to Valencia and leave her in the care of his brother Vicente. Macu is there to help her around the house and they form a friendship that will later include Freya.
In modern day Valencia, Emma realises that there is some sort of secret about the house she is now living in and renovating. Her grandmother Freya doesn't want to talk about the house or about the time that she spent in Spain, and the people she meets in Valencia also don't seem too eager to tell her about who lived in the house. At the same time, the woman that Joe left her for, finds out that she is pregnant and decided to follow her to Valencia.
I have to say that I was much more interested in what was going on in 1937 than what was going on with Emma. But the author managed to take Emma on a journey about rediscovering her roots and it was as if I was right there with her finding out, bit by bit, what had happened to Rosa and Jordi and Macu. When Emma finds Macu, she doesn't realise that she is the one that can tell her all the secrets, she and Freya, but we do. And I kept hoping that they would finally sit down and actually talk about the past, especially when Emma starts to realise that those secrets have something to do with her. And in Valencia she finds her past but also her future.
This is a book about women. The main characters are all strong female figures and I think Kate Lord Brown successfully makes us understand the important role that women had in the conflict. I think it is clear she did a huge amount of research both about the war and what happened afterwards.
I highly recommend this book to everyone who likes a good story with strong female characters and I especially recommend it to those with an interest in modern Spanish history. The Civil War and what happened afterwards are still open wounds in Spain's society. I don't think that having a "pact of silence" about it helped. The victims and their families deserve to be remembered, not forgotten. And keeping the memory alive, in historical records as in historical fiction, is one way to prevent the past from repeating itself.
Adapted and expanded from my review at Historical Tapestry