Friday, August 12, 2016

The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas: A review

The Seed Collectors: A NovelThe Seed Collectors: A Novel by Scarlett Thomas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

How do I even begin to try to sum up this book? First of all, it seems impossible to categorize, and if I can't easily fit it into one of my "reading boxes," how can I analyze my experience with it? It is literary fiction, but at some point, it slops over into mysticism and fantasy. It seems a bit like a cross between Kate Atkinson and Paulo Coelho. In the last third of the book, it is more Coelho than Atkinson and it sort of lost me there.

This is the story of a family. A dysfunctional family - but then aren't all families dysfunctional to some degree? This one, however, is dysfunctional to the nth degree.

This is the Gardener family. We meet the fourth and fifth generations of the clan descended from an English botanist and his Indian wife. The family tradition is that all children who do not carry the family name of Gardener will be named in honor of plants. Thus, we have Fleur, Plum, Ash, Bryony, Clematis (Clem), Holly, etc.

As we meet them, the matriarch of the family, Oleander, has recently died and has left behind a yoga retreat center called Namaste House and a collection of mystical seedpods that supposedly hold the secret of enlightenment, but also are deadly. We later learn that there is also a magical book in the inheritance.

Oleander has left Namaste House to her niece, Fleur, and has left each of her heirs one of those mystical seedpods. You might think of them as something like Jack and his Beanstalk, except in this case, the "beans" will provide an escape from self and from existence itself. By the time one reaches the end of this story, the reader begins to see the consumption of the seedpod as a not unreasonable choice.

This is a fantastic (in the truest sense of the word) and really weird novel that encompasses a sprawling and secretive family and various hangers-on. It is about sex, love, botany, yoga, inheritance, horticulture, incest, eating disorders, alcoholism, infidelity, family and societal dysfunctionality. At times we see the world through the perspective of plants and one memorable section shows us events through the eyes of a robin that Fleur feeds at her birdseed table. 


We get rambling interior monologues and dialogues that often do not identify the speakers. The reader is left to guess. All of this is interspersed with sometimes tortuous philosophical passages with mystical overtones. (Those are the parts that reminded me of Coelho.) 

Taken as a whole, the book seemed a bit like a postmodern narrative experiment, told in disjointed, nonlinear fashion. At times, it appeared as though the author was deliberately trying to frustrate the reader.

As for the characters, none of them is allowed to be happy and all seem to be, to a greater or lesser degree, selfish, mean, moral failures. The most vivid of them is Bryony, a fat, self-involved but truly un-self-aware woman. She is a neglectful mother, a cheating wife, a woman who lives to shop. She is always on a diet. At least she tells herself she is, but in fact she is constantly gorging on food and drinks as many as two bottles of wine a day. In some ways, the lives of this miserable family seem to revolve around her. She is the center of all their despair.

And yet, unlovable, unlikable as they are, one gets the sense that these characters are actually trying to do their best. They are trying to be happy. They just don't know how. Maybe Oleander knew what she was doing when she left them an exit with those seed pods.

I've only barely scratched the surface in attempting to describe this novel. It is really unlike anything I have read before. The things that I liked about it and what really drew me into the story at the beginning were the writer's vivid imagery and the seeming effortlessness with which she wrote. The tale seemed to be unfolding almost in a stream of consciousness fashion. But in the end I was put off by her apparent aggressive refusal to resolve anything. All of the characters, along with the reader, are left hanging, so even though I found the writing beautiful, the overall reading experience left me somewhat exasperated.


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5 comments:

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    1. Thanks. I didn't really feel up to the task. I still don't.

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  2. Hmm...It seems that her writing is experimental. What turned me off from the little I read of The End of Mr. Y was the philosophical experiment of the plot. It sounded better reading what the book was about than the reading per se.

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    1. That's an interesting perspective. I haven't read her other books, but when I read the Times review of this one, it sounded promising. I was particularly interested in the botany aspect. But, although I can't fault the writing which was quite accomplished, and although I really rather enjoyed the book for about the first half, eventually it just lost me. Perhaps I require a bit more structure in my reading.

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    2. It seems that I do too, and a good measure of earthy substance as well. :-)

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