It might take many chapters of The Seed Collectors for readers to notice that the novel is as much fantasy as it is realism, but author Scarlett Thomas’s deft smatterings of magic appear before the narrative does.
The opening lines muse, “Imagine a tree that can walk. Yes, actually walk. Think it’s impossible? You’re wrong. It’s called the walking palm.” The speaker is Clematis (or Clem) Gardener, a botanical documentarian talking about her award-winning new film, “Palm,” on the radio. The words sound fantastical, but are presented with the ring of truth; many readers may also be familiar with the term “walking palm” (it’s a real plant) and have heard of its ability to gradually shift its roots and move over ground (a trait that many scientists believe to be mythical).
Before there’s much time to ponder the existence of the walking palm, however, the narrative puts it back on the shelf, a quiet part of the scenery. Clem, with her prize-winning documentary on the palm, makes up just one stem of the branching Gardener clan, and The Seed Collectors occupies itself by skimming easily from one to the next, landing on each and sucking out their darkest neuroses as efficiently as a literary mosquito.
The whole saga began with Charles Emery Augustus Gardener and his wife Gita, the parents of Oleander and Emery Augustus Charles Gardener, who married Beatrix and spawned Plum and Augustus. The Gardener family, appropriately, has a long family tradition of working with plants -- horticulturalists, botanists -- and female children, who might give up the Gardener name upon marriage, are all given botanical names to maintain that link. There’s handsome, rakish botanist Charlie, Clem’s brother; their cousin Bryony, who shops, eats, and drinks compulsively to distract from her issues with her husband and children; and their great-aunt Oleander, a guru to the stars whose recent death has left family friend Fleur Meadows in charge of running Namaste House.
One generation back, the family’s plant-based calling took a tragic turn. Clem and Charlie’s mother Grace, Bryony’s parents Plum and Quinn, and Fleur’s mother Briar Rose, all famous botanists, disappeared during a mission to an obscure island, where they hoped to find seed pods that held the key to enlightenment. After their parents vanished, Fleur found refuge with Oleander -- one of the few in the family who seemingly knew the fatherless Fleur was related by more than friendship to the Gardeners -- building a quiet life on the outskirts of Namaste House, where Oleander dished out lentil soup and spiritual guidance to the Beatles and emotionally lost pop starlets.
The death of her protector leaves Fleur in a position of power she’s uneasy with; instead of working quietly at a sheltered retreat, where the pensive, sylph-like woman could shield herself from a love she knew she couldn’t have, she’s suddenly tasked with guiding the souls of people who seem equally fragile and lost.
But it’s not just Fleur who’s roiled by Oleander’s death. In addition to leaving Namaste House to her protege, the guru has bequeathed a mysterious seed pod to each of the Gardeners -- the very valuable seed pods their parents disappeared pursuing. The inheritance may be valuable, but in what way, the Gardeners don’t exactly know yet; it also may be dangerous, but how, they don’t exactly know either. As Fleur, desperate for guidance, travels to far-flung locales in search of a magical book bequeathed to her by Oleander she hopes will lead her to enlightenment, the rest of the family are quietly drifting into their own crises, led by unchecked appetites and unnoticed needs. The Gardeners are a clan in the business of enlightenment, discovery, and clear categorization, but in reality, their souls are murky and the ties that bind them tangled and weak.
The touches of the fantastic in The Seed Collectors are so light and enter so gently that they sneak up and past, almost before the reader has a chance to notice that something completely impossible is happening in the very human and recognizable world of the Gardener family. It’s a testament to Thomas’ sleight of hand, though sometimes it almost seems unnecessary, a distraction from the deeper questions at play. The constant question of the novel, though, sparks from these moments of make-believe as much as from the relatable, real-world moments: What if things were otherwise? What would you do, who would you be, if the factors standing in your way weren’t there? And, if you really think about it, are those factors really standing in your way?
At every moment, Thomas is nudging us to ask whether we, and the world, are the way we assume they are, and whether a mere shift of frame could change everything and reveal a greater truth.
The Seed Collectors might hinge around fanciful seeds, magical thinking, and enchanted books, but sometimes, as any fan of zen koans would likely agree, it’s the most baffling and impossible scenario that clears our eyes to the everyday.
The bottom line:
A searing family saga with dollops of magical realism, The Seed Collectors is an exquisitely nimble novel about self-knowledge, love and self-love, and the many ways we shape our lives.
What other reviewers think:
The Guardian: "These are a lot of ideas to hold together and it’s Thomas’s writing that unifies them. Her prose is splendidly alive, full of unexpected phrases and delicious cadences."
Publishers Weekly: "Ebullient prose, engaging characters, lively imagination, illuminating details -- Thomas is an original, and her novel is consistently entertaining."
Who wrote it?
Scarlett Thomas is an English author who has published eight previous novels, including Our Tragic Universe and The End of Mr. Y, which was longlisted for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction in 2007.
Who will read it?
Readers who love thorny family sagas and stories that closely interweave realism with elements of fantasy.
“Imagine a tree that can walk. Yes, actually walk. Think it’s impossible? You’re wrong. It’s called the walking palm. Its thick dreadlocky roots rest on the ground rather than inside it, and when it has had enough of being where it is, it quietly uproots itself, like a long-wronged wife, and walks away, at a speed of just over one metre per year. In the time it takes a walking palm to flounce out, nations will fall, people will die of old age, ancient secrets will be told, and new-born babies will grow into actual people who … ”
“It is a chilly spring morning in Hackney, but in Charlie’s mind he is somewhere else, somewhere perhaps sub-tropical, definitely pre-fertile-crescent, somewhere where there is no wheat swaying in the breeze and quietly enslaving people. In this place, Charlie, a hunter-gatherer wearing a simple garment made not from cotton but from skin, plucks some blueberries from a tree. He steals a small amount of honey from a bees’ nest, perhaps led there by a honey-guide -- a bird that evolved along with humans and uses its song to tell people where to find bees’ nests in return for the beeswax the humans drop. Perhaps there are some primitive wild oats too -- dodgy, but not as bad as contemporary wheat, which studies have shown stimulates the same neurological pathways as opiates. Charlie should use these ingredients to make a simple muesli, in which the nuts and fruits far outnumber the oats, but, even though he knows it is unlikely that you would come across a microwave in this pre-agricultural, sub-tropical wilderness, he still fancies porridge after his run.”
The Seed Collectors
by Scarlett Thomas
Soft Skull Press, $26.00
Publishes May 10, 2016
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