The Smell of Fresh Rain by Barney Shaw

Petrichor: that would be the alternative title for this book about the often-neglected human sense of smell. In avoiding that lovely but obscure word, Barney Shaw is making a specific point: we don’t have an everyday vocabulary for talking about smells; there are specialist terms and concepts, but try to depict an ordinary scent in words and you may struggle.

I had just such an experience myself the other week. We’d bought a jar of Sun-Pat peanut butter at Sainsbury’s that didn’t taste or smell right, but no longer had the receipt to return it to the store. When I contacted the company on Twitter, my attempts to describe the problem were decidedly feeble: we’d bought a “duff jar,” I wrote; it tasted and smelled “off.” If pressed I would perhaps have used the word “stale,” but I had no way of conveying how exactly it didn’t taste or smell right. (Sun-Pat very kindly took my word for it and sent £10 worth of vouchers. The new jars we bought as replacements tasted better but still not the same as before: chances are they’ve recently changed the recipe to be cheaper.)

I’m intrigued by the related senses of smell and taste in general, so I was delighted to find a whole book on the topic. Shaw, a retired civil servant who served as a private secretary to various government ministers, approaches the topic as an amateur enthusiast rather than a scientist, so his language is never overly technical and he ranges between history, anatomy, literature and even self-help.

Much of the book was researched “on location,” as it were. Shaw travels to Portsmouth to grasp the signature smells of the seaside; visits a hardware store to differentiate the odors of different metals (they release no smell on their own, only in contact with human skin/sweat); returns to his hometown to discover the smells associated with suburban gardens and different types of High Street shops; and sniffs at butcher stalls, pubs, and London Underground trains. With his son, blind from birth and autistic, he sets out to capture “the smell of 3 a.m.” as early-morning market sellers set out their mushrooms and cheeses.

Shaw also travels through time, imagining what it might have smelled like in the mid-nineteenth century or earlier: raw sewage, cooking smoke, animal dung, and laundries and tanneries with their reek of stale urine. Once many of those stinks were eliminated, bad smells became associated with the working classes (as in the work of Maugham and Orwell) or with foreigners, a continuing prejudice that fuels xenophobia. The book also traces the rise of the perfume industry and other artificial smells like scent diffusers and vaping. Shaw is uncomfortable with the idea of natural scents being replaced by synthetic ones, and notes the environmental consequences of our obsession with abolishing body odor: “The price we pay for hygiene and deodorants is in the pollution pumped out by a billion washing machines and … soap, toothpaste and washing powder flowing down to the seas.”

There are fascinating facts on pretty much every page of this book; I won’t bore you by listing them, but will just say that if you’re interested in exploring the connections between smell and memory in life and in literature, in discovering what makes the human sense of smell unique, and in learning some wine-tasting-style tips for describing odors, this is the perfect introduction. I noted a bit of repetition in the book, especially at chapter openings, but that didn’t keep me from being as enthralled with the subject matter as Shaw, a passionate tour guide to the olfactory world, so clearly is.

My rating:

 

The Smell of Fresh Rain was released in the UK on November 14th. My thanks to Victoria Reed at Icon Books for the free copy for review.

 

Other books referencing smell/taste that I have read or at least sampled:

  • Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum
  • Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste  by Bianca Bosker
  • Parfums: A Catalogue of Remembered Smells by Philippe Claudel
  • The Diary of a Nose by Jean-Claude Ellena
  • A Smell of Burning: The Story of Epilepsy by Colin Grant
  • Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind

 

Other smell-related titles on my TBR:

Nonfiction:

  • Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent by Mandy Aftel
  • Taste, Memory: Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter by David Buchanan
  • The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York by Chandler Burr
  • The Case against Fragrance by Kate Grenville

Fiction:

  • A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain and Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler
  • The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge
  • The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
  • The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro
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19 thoughts on “The Smell of Fresh Rain by Barney Shaw

  1. This does sound interesting. I hope he managed to capture the ‘smell of 3 am’ for his son. I loved Parfums, which you list after the review – beautiful autobiographical vignettes that explore the link between smell and memory

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    1. His son also has synesthesia; it’s really interesting how his senses influence each other. I never did finish Parfums (it was a library copy), but I liked what I did read of it. I think it was your review that turned me on to it way back when!

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  2. This sounds fascinating! I have a good friend (since childhood) who was born without a sense of smell. She doesn’t know any different, of course, but I kept wondering what it would be like. I wonder does it affect her sense of taste? I feel bad for her if things don’t taste as good. But then again, there are a lot of bad smells she doesn’t have to worry about!
    Once she was throwing a birthday party for a friend at her house and she had a chocolate cake baking in the oven. Several of us commented on how good it smelled, and she thought we were giving the surprise away – she didn’t know we could all smell it!

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    1. Unfortunately, losing your sense of smell does affect taste because they are so interlinked: it usually means you can only taste generic categories of flavors (sweet, salty) and different textures. I would really miss being able to appreciate different foods and drinks. Like you say, though, your friend knows no other way of life so can’t miss it.

      I imagine not having a sense of smell can sometimes have fringe benefits. I remember reading about a birdwatcher who was happy to go look for rare birds at landfill sites because the smell didn’t bother him at all! But then when I met the Bookbarn chairman last month he told me he’d lost his sense of smell in his later years and now can’t smell books anymore, and that made me really sad for him.

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      1. I keep thinking about the scientists who do autopsies on the beached whales and how putrid they say the smell is. That would be the perfect job for someone with no sense of smell!

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  3. Oh, this sounds fascinating, I must add it to my wishlist. The sense of smell is so emotional in many ways, just a whiff of a perfume will take you right back and I’m conjuring up the smell of an eyeliner I used at school just writing this now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He talks a lot about the memories smell can bring up, seemingly because of where its receptors are in the brain. Certain cooking smells instantly make me think of Christmas (or Thanksgiving), various book smells can take me back to reading them, cleaning product/household smells remind me of different houses I’ve spent time in…

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  4. I think that, of all the senses, smell is most closely tied to memory. At least it is for me. One whiff can bring back entire brilliantly coloured ‘film clips’ in my mind.

    I had no idea that such a book was ‘out there’. I’ve already added it to my TBR. Thanks for your wonderful review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Debbie. I was so pleased to find this book — I think a photo of the splendid cover turned up on Twitter or Instagram. Otherwise I don’t know if I would ever have heard of it.

      The science definitely backs you up on that point about smell and memory.

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