Map of Blue Book Balloon

22 June 2015

Review: The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas

The Seed Collectors
Scarlett Thomas
Canongate, 2 July 2015
Hardback, 417 pages

I'm grateful to the publisher and author for letting me have advance copy of this book . I'd been anticipating it for ages - I think Scarlett Thomas blogged the title at least three years ago.

And the wait was worthwhile.  While I would happily read a telephone directory authored by Thomas simply for the writing, "The Seed Collectors" is an extremely absorbing, readable book, funny in places, sad in places (sometimes the same ones).  Above all it is perceptive, and deeply human.

The story moves between several different 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 and Skye Turner, a pop star who has risen from humble origins, alcoholic (but coping... kind of...) Bryony and her troubled daughter.  These are distinct voices, but the twists of the plot, and the way the characters interact, means that while sometimes it's clear who is speaking, often it isn't (at least, till you catch the rhythm of the novel and see what she's doing) and there are sections in other voices altogether and parts which read as disembodied commentary (commentary, not narration: for example "Somewhere in the world there is a magical book..." or "Imagine one day... who were you, before you forgot"). These might be fragments of the narratives referred to in the book, or the observations of someone else, not in the story: it isn't clear, but the effect is one of layering, perhaps as in a painting, intensifying the reality of the characters even while distancing the text from them. There are even parts in the voice of a garden robin (I know, I know - but really, it's not twee at all, rather it is intense, conveying a realistic personality without any hint of a pseudo "person". )  

It's not all "voices". There are letters and other texts 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 observing flailing, failing relationships.  Another example is the bald statement that Fleur was no bother as a child to her father - because he didn't admit she was his daughter.  Or there the description of Holly, Bryony's awkward daughter, as another of her mother's failed projects.

Thomas 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, yoga or the failure mode of the Smartguide tooth cleaning helper. But there's always something there, some bit of distracted thought or compulsive behaviour that illustrates a character better than pages of dialgue would.  That, combined with the changing viewpoints, the wide assembly of characters and the uncertainty over who's speaking means there isn't such an obvious plot as in some of Thomas's earlier books.  Consequently "The Seed Collectors" has a more diffuse air than they do which may not be to everyone's taste - for myself, I loved it: done well, that kind of digressive, sprawling story just takes root in the mind and grows, almost as thought it weren't actually written at all. 

This book is done well: the stems have been pruned and carefully trained. What's presented - however much at times it appears incidental - is essential, giving hints about the characters and about the relationships between them, actual and emotional.  And despite what I wrote above, there is plot. I said it was diffuse, and that's how it starts, but it becomes clearer: there's almost something holographic about the book, the whole story runs through every moment but the more of it you read, the sharper it becomes.  A great deal does happen in this book and has happened - only it isn't described as it happens. We see instead the impact, the ripples, and like a hologram, when you look at those the right way the events come into focus and jump out at you. 

Most immediately, 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 takes over.  Oleander's funeral isn't described, instead we see members of the extended Gardener family afterwards, like fragments of debris after an explosion.  Similarly, there has been a bequest of rare (poisonous, exotic, perhaps magical, it's never quite clear) seed pods to family members, but this is never directly stated nor is it explained.until much later. Even then, it's far from clear exactly what was inherited: these seeds may not all be same. The terms of Oleander's will are only heard indirectly from a telephone conversation and so only described at second hand. Oleander herself never features either - instead we're given some sideways insight about her. For example, Pi claims that "Imagine you are a squirrel" is the kind of thing she might have said - but this is immediately followed by  the narrator/ commentator (perhaps this is Oleander, somehow?) picking up the sentence and meditating on a squirrel's life.  Then there are the references to the "prophet" who lives at Namaste House, and who 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 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 searching for those seed pods.  This is I think the root of all that happens: children are left coping (badly) with loss, and not knowing what happened, setting of trains of events down (and across) the generations.  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. 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, who is an alcoholic - in a fearfully knowledgeable way, as though the fact that the wine she has waiting for is her is good wine, named wine that cost £30 a bottle, means she is, really, in control - and compulsive shopper (ditto: she knows all the brands, but she has an "e-Bay room" full of stuff she bought and has no use or desire for - shopping is, as Thomas says, like a drug in its effects). Thomas is really good at describing Bryony's relationship with food, her mind an endless fight between the intention to diet and the overwhelming will to eat, crystallised in a stream of thought that's half guilt, half justification, as well as her shopping: "Bryony has taken off and is now moving around the display of handbags like a large tornado moves around the east coast of the USA. She's only about seventy per cent predictable,  and could arrive anywhere without warning..." 

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 most of Thomas's earlier protagonists) - 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).

This inability to cope isn't limited to the Gardners.  The main non family member who features, Skye Turner, is a pop singer struggling with fame and money who comes into their orbit after having a You-Tubed meltdown on a train.  Skye shows symptoms of the same malaise.  When she and Fleur take off for the Hebrides (the family has inherited a remote hunting lodge from Oleander) Thomas has a gentle dig at their Ab Fab lifestyle - Skye and Fleur are sitting by the emergency exit, the very worst people imaginable to have control of it, ...these lipsticked, ponytailed disasters...")

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 the impacts.  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 too - 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.  

So 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment