In Scarlett Thomas’s world, nature is red in tooth and claw; salad ingredients exist in a constant state of warfare, and middle-class families are busy fucking each other over, or just fucking. The success of Thomas’s previous novels has been based on her ability to present esoteric ideas about the nature of reality and being within the structure of the literary thriller. Now, after a five year wait The Seed Collectors has arrived, and the philosophical musings have swept aside the boundaries of conventional narrative form, leaving a sprawling, enthralling, chaotic and beguiling mess of a novel.
It’s incredibly difficult to pin this book down; there’s botany, Buddhism and bondage, a thoroughly dislikeable cast of characters including an alcoholic estate agent, a pompous magazine columnist and a disgraced popstar, and a weird disappearance. At times, the combination of domestic tension, kinky sex and shopping trips makes it read like an aga saga for weird kids. There are multiple narrative strands, including some sections which are narrated by a robin redbreast, and speech is peppered with ‘wtf’s and ‘omfg’s. The whole thing is constantly on the verge of collapsing in on itself, but somehow manages to keep going, like a cartoon character who has run off the edge of a cliff but hasn’t noticed it yet.
The novel follows the fortunes of the Gardener family, a well-off Home Counties clan descended from a group of famous botanists who ‘disappeared on the trail of a miracle plant that probably never existed, or possibly killed them all’. Another family member, Oleander, was ‘a famous guru who met the Beatles’ and founded an Ayurvedic clinic and yoga centre in Sandwich. When Oleander dies, the Gardeners receive a strange inheritance: a collection of seed pods worth £10,000 each, and a book which mysteriously changes identity (‘it used to be the Upanishads quite regularly. I believe it spent a year with a friend of the Prophet’s as The Master and Margarita. When I first read it, it was a strange memoir about a lost martial art’.)
The seed pods, from the mystery plant which lured the previous generation of Gardeners to their deaths, can bestow instant enlightenment on anyone who takes one (the downside is that it will also kill you instantly). Alternatively, in a diluted form (marinated in the tears of Enlightened Ones), they will provide a temporary connection with the cosmic consciousness, and the ability to fly. Effectively, the family is being offered an instant escape from samsara, the cycle of birth, life and death, if they wish to use it. In a metaphorical sense, the seeds are the opposite of the fruit of the tree of knowledge; whereas taking that fruit burdened humanity with guilt and shame, the seeds will break down the ego and the sources of human suffering.
The family, however, are too caught up in the world of desire to take advantage. Bryony, an overweight estate agent, is in love with her cousin Charlie, and attempts to dull her unhappiness with wine and luxury shopping trips; her husband James passive-aggressively torments her with his pompous environmentalism. Their daughter, a skilled junior tennis player, teeters on the verge of an eating disorder, while Charlie becomes obsessed with bondage and paleo diets. Ollie, an academic, can’t satisfy his wife Clem’s desire for a child, and throws himself into a calamitous relationship with a student, for whom he has paternal feelings. Clem, meanwhile, is also becoming romantically attached to a junior colleague. Fleur, who ran the yoga centre for Oleander, is drawn in to a strange co-dependent relationship with the pop star Skye Turner, a client who has gone from rags to riches and is tormented by the fear of going back again. The extensive cast list and overwhelming level of detail has caused the publishers to liken The Seed Collectors to Middlemarch, although I’m not sure there was as much incest in George Elliot’s novel.
At times, The Seed Collectors seems as though it was designed to annoy; if you get wound up by accounts of bourgeois consumerism, then Bryony lists brands like Le Creuset, Dartington Crystal and Liberty with all the enthusiasm of a Kentish Patrick Bateman. If you’re turned off by ‘therapy and yoga and everything’ then there’s plenty of that too. If you get upset by the thought of grown women in literary fiction saying things like ‘totes amazeballs’ then, again, you might want to look elsewhere. If you’re into likeable characters, then you won’t find anything here.
Despite all this, there’s an energy to the novel which makes it a compelling read. Ideas fly off the page, and it is peppered with delightfully strange little asides (Thomas notes a ‘yeti woman’ in the swimming pool, a woman on a date looking ‘faintly leprous’ in a burgundy dress, another character wearing an ‘oddly intoxicating perfume that smelled like a bag of sweets left in a men’s locker room for too long’). She also seems to enjoy berating her characters, not least Bryony and her fashion sense: ‘if you colour block at Bryony’s size you look like a publicly commissioned artwork’.
I’m fairly confident that The Seed Collectors will be the oddest mainstream book released this year. It demands a lot from the reader (at least a passing acquaintance with Vedic scriptures or the ideas behind Transcendental Meditation would probably help), and doesn’t make any concessions to commercialism. The narrative is massively fragmented and doesn’t really work in any traditional sense, becoming almost incoherent at times. And yet somehow, from all of this, Scarlett Thomas has crafted something extraordinary and beautiful.
Any Cop?: It shouldn’t work, but it does. No-one does botany, Buddhism, incest, bondage, yoga and shopping quite like Scarlett Thomas.