Some scents sparkle and then quickly disappear, like the effervescence of citrus zest or a bright note of mint. Some are strange siren songs of rarer origin that call from violets hidden in woodland, or irises after spring rain. Some scents release a rush of half-forgotten memories. And then there are the scents that seem to express truths about people and places that you have never forgotten: the scents that make time stand still.
How can I be frightened of a scent?
Thus begins Deborah Lawrenson’s The Lantern, a story of a place: Les GenÃ©vries, a stone farmhouse in the south of France and once the home of BÃ©nÃ©dicte and her family and where, many years later, Eve and Dom retire after meeting one another in Switzerland and falling in love. Eve doesn’t know much about Dom except that he loves her and that he was once married, but the marriage is off limits for discussion. The couple enjoy the solace of the farmhouse, though more than once lights mysteriously turn on or off, and Eve finds a lit lantern in one of the pathways that neither she nor Dom have lit. Les GenÃ©vries once housed families, but now the couple roams its hallways in silence, increasingly withdrawing from one another as Dom’s secrets hang in the air between them like the scents that mysteriously waft through the windows. BÃ©nÃ©dicte, in alternating chapters, gives the history of Les GenÃ©vries, and she has secrets of her own – a violent brother, a blind sister who asks BÃ©nÃ©dicte to be her eyes as she uses her enhanced power of scent to create perfume. As BÃ©nÃ©dicte and Eve get closer to uncovering the past, each woman also comes ever nearer uncovering the secrets of Les GenÃ©vries.
It is the place in this novel that is so enigmatic and elusive. Crumbling walls and uneven floors, the home itself has secrets: floorboards that lift and reveal hidden holes, irremovable stains, doors that lead nowhere. The two women feel this about the house but are wary of laying those secrets bare. The Lantern is essentially a mystery, but it’s also a Gothic tale, dark and evocative.
I wanted to love this book, and had I never read Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, I may have. If you’ve read that novel, you know that what Du Maurier excels at is creating a Gothic setting and increasing the suspense notch by notch before revealing the awful truth of Rebecca. However, if you already know the culmination of that story, The Lantern will feel very much like a cheap knockoff; it looks similar, but it’s not quite as good. This isn’t to say that Deborah Lawrenson isn’t a talented author, she is; however, Du Maurier’s masterpiece works because of the writing and the story itself. The Lantern fails at introducing anything new or noteworthy in terms of Dom and Eve’s plot.
BÃ©nÃ©dicte’s story is, to me, much more interesting. Yet BÃ©nÃ©dicte often felt like an afterthought, a side act to the main plot. Her sister, Marthe, becomes one of the most well-known creators of perfume in France, but she started out humbly, working in fields of lavender, sent away to learn a trade in which she could excel in her blindness. BÃ©nÃ©dicte is elderly when she begins to tell her story out of guilt and fear from an incident in her youth, prompted by apparitions of her family members when they are young. Though fearful, she lives alongside these ghosts, trying to discover why her sister cut off all communications after a violent argument with her brother and why they have chosen now to come back and haunt her.
Verdict: The Lantern is atmospheric and addictive, but if you’ve already read Rebecca, this may not be your favorite. If you haven’t read Rebecca, definitely give this one a try.