Published by Alfred A. Knopf
Review by W. R. Greer
Words often have a power to excite the senses. Losing yourself in a sensuous novel, you might find the author can make your skin feel like it's been touched, a food could be tasted right from the words on the page, or music could reach through your ears and down into your soul. In Gazelle by Rikki Ducornet, you'd swear you could smell the aromas and fragrances her prose evokes, holding the book to your nose and inhaling it to see if maybe the publisher anointed each book with some exotic scent before it found its way into your hands.
The plot in Gazelle is easy to summarize. The protagonist is a 13-year old American girl, Elizabeth, on the cusp of womanhood, living in Cairo in the 1950s while her father, a history professor, teaches there on a Fulbright Scholarship. Her mother, a beautiful Icelandic blonde in a country full of dark-haired and dark-skinned men, enjoys being the center of male attention. She leaves Elizabeth and her father to live in hotels and have as many lovers as she wants. This abandonment of the family strikes both Elizabeth and her father quite hard, creating deep resentment within Elizabeth and driving her father to depression and weakness.
Elizabeth's father (neither parent is ever given a name) becomes obsessed with playing war games. He creates whole armies of men, painting them in exact detail to re-create some historical battle. Her father makes up the rules to the games and plays these with his friend, Ramses Ragab, a creator of scents and perfumes. Ramses Ragab is an intelligent and sensitive man, and Elizabeth likes him instantly. He constantly visits her father, playing his war games with him, and doing his best to brighten his day and coax him out of the apartment. Ramses owns the Kosmètèrion, his store and laboratory for creating perfumes. As she and her father visit the Kosmètèrion for the first time, Elizabeth is captivated by both Ramses and his world:
". . . In fact," he was saying, "each element, because it is a thing of Nature, each blossom of henna, each grain of pepper --" and I was taken, not only by his eyes, but the planes of his face, his features, which I realized were very fine. And his mouth. His mouth was beautiful." -- each grain of pepper, so like the next it is impossible to tell one from the other, has properties of its own. If this difference is not readily perceptible, it is revealed upon close inspection. A harvest of roses will differ dramatically from one place to the next, one year to the next. I must see to it that despite divergences, the finished perfumes are alike as possible, unchanged year after year, all the while keeping in mind that an unexpected or random note may be exactly what I am ideally, ideally," he repeated, "looking for. The subtle yet marvelous divergence that will make the fragrance more active than before, more complex, more seductive, astonishing somehow. So that the one who wears it will never be forgotten." He smiled at me when he said: Never be forgotten.
"Never be forgotten" might be the central struggle of the characters in this novel. Elizabeth narrates the story from her adult future as an anatomist who dissects mummies in the museum in Cairo, using her memories to guide us through her tumultuous world when she was 13. Her mother used her beauty and brazen sexuality to capture men and create fear and envy in other women. She was in a rush to use all the power provided to her by her looks and body before it deserted her as she got older. Elizabeth's father wanted his wife back at any cost, letting his physical and mental health deteriorate in her absence. He felt like a nobody without her, lost in a world where he was unimportant and easily forgotten. Ramses Ragab let his skills be his attraction to the beautiful women in town. His perfumes would accent their beauty and seductiveness and were his entrance to their world.
At the center of it all, though, is young Elizabeth. She is repulsed by her mother's behavior yet wanting a little of that power for her own. She obtains a provocatively illustrated and unedited version of The Arabian Knights and she comes across Schéhérazade's comment, "It is good for a girl to be with a man." What better man, to Elizabeth's mind, than Ramses, the brilliant man sensitive to beauty and nature, feared by some by his magical ability to make women more beautiful than they really are. Elizabeth is aware that Sakkiet, a young girl who works for Ramses, is only a year older than she and about to be forced into a marriage she doesn't want.
It is the unseen power and magic that permeates Gazelle. In that ancient and exotic city, unseen forces seem to be at work all the time. The fragrance of the flowers, the sounds of the vendors, the tastes of the food, and the touch of the flesh are powerful forces that affect them all, driving them to a dreamlike world at times. When that dream turns to a nightmare, even older magic, forces thousands of years old, are called on in an attempt to regain control of their world.
This is a short book, less than 200 pages, and Rikki Ducornet immediately immerses the reader in this exotic time and place. That is also its biggest weakness. It's like being dropped into a foreign locale where you don't speak the language and lack a tour guide. I fumbled through the first half of the novel, trying to understand the references and French phrases, and was lost at times. It would be a mistake to put this book down and walk away, though. Halfway through the book, Ramses tells the story, The Garden of Semblance and Lies, about a magician who discovers the hidden name of God and has absolute power over everything. He find a beautiful girl and enchants her to love him forever, but since it's only a delusion, ultimately he has nothing. From that point, everything in the book comes together and it's easy to become immersed in the story and stroll the streets of Cairo or the gardens of Fayum, wondering whether Elizabeth's father would ever recover the love of her mother and whether Elizabeth would give herself to Ramses in declaration of her burgeoning feminine power.
Gazelle is ultimately a sad, but beautiful, book. Rikki Ducornet creates a vivid world of fragrance and sensuality, and the power those forces have on those caught in their spells. Like the magician of the story, though, it can be an empty power and just a delusion. Not even the ancient powers can control a heart and bring love where it's not offered. Enjoy Gazelle for its adventure through the realms of sensuality and let the fragrance of this story waft to your mind. Rikki Ducornet casts a tantalizing spell.
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