The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas
|... when it has had enough of being where it|
is, it quietly uproots itself, like a long-
wronged wife, and walks away...
To perform a customary synopsis, we begin with the death of Great Aunt Oleander, owner of the Namaste House retreat and matriarch of a rangy spread of Gardeners (capital G to indicate proper noun) who, whimsically, are also botanists. The news is greeted by family friend and Oleander's protege Fleur, gently supping an opiate-spiked tea, with in retrospect the amusing salute, "Oleander is dead. Long live Oleander."
From this tangles the off-shoots of familial introductions–chubby Bryony and hubby James, their children Ash and the troubled anorexic Holly; divorcé and hedonist Charlie; "famous-ish" documentarian Clem and husband Ollie; brief visits with Augustus, father to most of the above mentioned, and Beatrix, now elder stateswoman of the family, previously married to the grandfather; and by proxy to a trio of siblings who vanished in pursuit of a mysterious seed pod whilst on a trip to a lost island in the Pacific. Indeed, it is around these mysterious pods that, I think, most of the action orbits. Although I'm not sure.
I've read a few reviews in broadsheets and most seem to agree that the book is funny, cerebrally and vulgarly, entertains profundity and is provocative and uncomfortable despite the rather urbane middle class setting. But the implication, and in the case of the Telegraph, explicit criticism, is that it's a bit of a mess, that the reader can never feel comfortable with the format and structure as it whizzes about with its omniscience in and out of the heads of the characters (and also, in a weird but poetic moment, a robin, although it is claimed that this particular bird was at least seven years of age when the average life-span of a male robin is 1.1 years). Of course, this might be the point, that we should abandon illusory notions of individuality and embrace our one-ness with the God Head, and that the narrative process is a living thing which shoots off whence it will. As a comedy of manners it is an acutely observed success, a thwack against fat thighs of the consumption driven middle classes, Guardian readers, university types and so on, although I tend to agree with the Guardian on their disappointment with the aggressive sexual theme. I personally found it very amusing throughout, full of ideas and invention, but was lost in parts through the quick movement between characters' points of view, and was confused about the seeds, their origins, their effects (in one section Fleur and teen celebrity burn-out Skye claim to fly around the world whilst under their influence–not sure if this should be taken literally or metaphorically) and their purpose in the novel. That they might be capable of taking one off the wheel of life and death was interesting, but the caveat that this was only possible when mixed with the tears of an enlightened person (and that people actually had vials of the stuff) stretched my suspension of disbelief into incredulity. Also, the enigmatic Prophet character was an odd addition, perhaps used to provide a revenue stream for what would otherwise be a struggling endeavour in Namaste House. I just don't know.
So to conclude, I repeat that I don't know what Thomas wanted to achieve, or how the book should be read. In that respect I wonder whether having read any of the entire backlist of hers I owned before the Great Purge of 2012 would have helped me to spot common themes and traits and thus facilitate understanding, but sadly, I have yet to replace those now lost tomes. Nevertheless, what I did get was joyful, irreverent and very entertaining. And a huge thank you goes to Scarlett Thomas for her generosity, and a huge apology if I've been so lacking in comprehension or sophistication as to leave her work sullied in a minor book review blog.