Highly regarded Australian author Kate Grenville (The Idea of Perfection, The Secret River, etc) would have been incensed - the relevance of the word will soon become apparent - to have seen a recent liftout in The Australian Financial Review badged ‘The Scent Issue 2017’.
There, in page after page of glamorous stories, the virtues of the world’s famous perfumiers were extolled from every angle. Fragrances were divided into categories - floral, oriental, woods, fresh and aromatic fougères, the last being the ‘coming together of all elements’ - and brands slotted into each.
Gucci’s Bamboo, for instance, is “woody and floral, with notes of Casablanca lily, sandalwood and Tahitian vanilla”.
While those who formulate, manufacture, write about and wear these scents are enthusiastic in the extreme, Kate Grenville would be sickened by each and every one of them, quite literally.
Although a perfume user in her earlier years, by her 30s she had stopped using scent and as time passed she came to dislike not only perfumes but other kinds of scents as well, such as “the sickly fragrance in cosmetics, shampoo and cleaning products.”
Recovering from a virus in her 50s, Grenville realized she had become even more sensitive to scents, and during a night at the opera, sitting near a woman who had refreshed her perfume at interval, she developed a raging headache, sore eyes and “a strange fog in my brain that made everything feel far away and confused. All I wanted was to go home to bed.”
Worse was to come in 2015 during a book promotion tour when she arrived at her overly-scented hotel - patchouli in the lift, indeed! - triggering a reaction that would continue throughout the tour.
Meeting some admiring fans, she recalls, “They had no idea in the world that a choice they’d made that morning was resulting in me having a headache. Fragrance in all its forms was an automatic part of their lives… It was I who had the problem. I felt embarrassed, somehow ashamed, and very alone.”
This book is her attempt to help us better understand what she terms ‘Planet Fragrance’, a place where man-made scents are so pervasive that the only way to avoid them is to become “to put it mildly - eccentric.”
When her pursuit of “straight-up, reliable information” about fragrance led her nowhere except specialist scientific publications, Grenville did what any good author would - decided to write her own book.
“Fragrance has plenty of friends. The case for it is made every day by people who make money out of it, and people who just love the way it smells.
“But there’s a downside to fragrance - to do with our health - that you don’t hear much about… Using fragrance is a choice and my hope is that this book might give people the chance to make that choice an informed one.”
After considering the extent of the problem - “Dermatologists think that between one and four per cent of the population has an allergic reaction to fragrance”, and it’s much commoner in women than men - she goes on to present chemical analyses of scents and fragranced products, and ultimately to issue a plea for fragrance-free products, workplaces, public events and greater personal awareness of the problems that the scent-intolerant can face.
While The Case Against Fragrance may not encourage me to throw away the Issey Miyake cologne I was given for Christmas (“top notes bring sweet and fresh waves of tangerine, bergamot, yuzu and orange… etc”) it has certainly made me more mindful of when and where I might wear it.