The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas

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Reviewed by David Harris

This book is very different from Thomas’s last, Our Tragic Universe. We see events from several viewpoints, mostly members of the rambling Gardener family: Fleur, her lover Pi, Charlie, a botanist with an imaginative sex life, his colleagues Izzy and Nicola, botanist and filmmaker Clem, alcoholic (but coping) Bryony and her daughter, Holly, and Skye Turner, a popstar who has risen from humble origins. There are sections which seem to be in other voices altogether and which read as being distanced, as commentary, not narration: for example, “Somewhere in the world there is a magical book…” There are letters, and a (long, long) list of essential characteristics for a girlfriend, written, clearly, by an adolescent male and stuffed with pomposity and misogyny and contradiction – but which is then almost heartstopping when it concludes, “44. Understands what it is like to lose mother”. That is something Thomas does so well in this book – turning the mood of a passage on a sixpence with writing that is sharp, electric, absolutely on the button, often when describing flailing, failing relationships.

She will follow a shopping trip, a university seminar or a meal in a restaurant, sometimes digressing for several pages to tell us about walking palm trees, tennis tactics or yoga. That, combined with the changing viewpoints, the wide assembly of characters and the uncertainty over who’s speaking (at least, till you catch the rhythm of the novel and see what she’s doing) means there isn’t such an obvious plot as in her earlier books. Consequently, perhaps, The Seed Collectors has a more diffuse air than they do which may not be to everyone’s taste. For myself, I love that kind of digressive, sprawling story, as long as it’s done well – and this book is done well. What’s presented is relevant, giving hints about the characters, about the relationships between them, actual and emotional. Most of all, watch for the plot, because while on the surface, not much seems to be going on, underneath, a great deal does happen, and has happened – only it isn’t described as it happens. We see instead the impact, the ripples.

Most obviously, at the start of the book the funeral has just taken place of a central character, Oleander, who established Namaste House, a retreat centre with overtones of Eastern mysticism which Fleur then takes over. Oleander’s funeral isn’t described: instead we see members of the extended family afterwards, like fragments of debris after an explosion. The terms of Oleander’s Will are overhead in a telephone conversation and so only described at second hand. Oleander herself never features, instead we’re given sideways insight about her. Then there are the references to the “prophet” who lives at Namaste House, and is clearly an important part of the setup – but it’s as though knowledge is assumed: nothing is explained. Thomas is though so good at hinting, at describing one thing through its impact on another, that pretty soon we think we know what’s what. So as we see how Namaste House runs and how Fleur regards it, we’re nodding along, thinking, ah yes, the Prophet, just like him, that.

The central, defining event of the book, is very much part of this pattern, something that happened years before and which isn’t described until a fair way into the story (and then at second hand, and who can you really trust to tell you the truth in a book like this?) when three members of the family vanished in the East (India? The Pacific?) searching for the seed pods of the title. This is I think the root of all that happens: children are left not knowing what happened and coping (badly) with loss. There’s a lot of low self-worth, leading to overeating and compulsive behaviour: drinking, eating, shopping, sex. Grandchildren pick up the vibes and go adrift as well. But it’s all protectively, fiercely, managed in a very English middle-class way – that indirectness again, not stating what’s right in front of you but hinting, assuming, coping.

A lot of this seems to fall on Bryony. Bryony is an alcoholic is a fearfully knowledgeable way (as though the fact that the wine she has waiting is a good wine that cost £30 a bottle means she is, really, in control), compulsive shopper, and has “issues” with food. Thomas is really good at describing Bryony’s relationship with food, her mind an endless fight between the intention to eat less and the overwhelming urge to eat, crystallised in a stream of thought that’s half guilt, half justification. Bryony is a magnificent creation, sympathetic and horrible at the same time. However, this entire family seems pretty dysfunctional. While a lot of what they’re going through might attract the hashtag #firstworldproblems – they’re all fairly well off, nobody is homeless or even poor (in contrast with the protagonists of some of Thomas’s earlier books) – they seem oddly unfit to actually cope with the pressures of the modern world. Bryony even has trouble working a telephone at one point. Others take refuge in syncretistic mysticism or food faddism (Charlie – when he’s not having or imagining weird sex).

So, the Gardeners stumble through their lives, getting a few things right but a lot wrong, learning something – but not everything – about that disappearance. There’s a suggestion of an enlightenment there, for some of them, but it’s not I think a central thing – when that blessed state is reached (or not) Thomas in effect takes a device that other writers might base a whole story round, picks it up, examines it, then simply puts it to one side and gets on with the book. Like so much else we’re left to speculate about what actually happened, based on its impact. It’s nothing like a tidy or happy ending, but it is though very entertaining getting to that untidy ending, and there is some brilliant writing. I’ll just quote one more example: Bryony, standing picking sunflowers for her husband observes that they “stand in the field like a row of Marilyn Monroes…”

That’s exactly right, isn’t it? Something I never saw before – maybe there is some enlightenment in here, after all.

This is, for me, far and away the best book I’ve read this year, and the best I expect to read for a long time.

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David blogs at Blue Book Balloon.

Scarlett Thomas, The Seed Collectors (Canongate: Edinburgh, 2015). 978-1847679208, 384pp., hardback.

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