October 07, 2015

The Seed Collectors - Scarlett Thomas

Canongate, July 2, 2015.

Five Stars

This is an unusual book, with a story and a structure that are both full of surprises. It’s filled with fascinating conversations (often in the form of interior monologues) that create individuality between characters and their odd, messy, flawed relationships. The structure is built on fragments of narrative, and it is sometimes difficult to guess who is speaking – it is disjointed, but I liked it. It was like seeing the author’s thought processes through her characters and made for a more interesting interpretation of events.

In the larger picture, The Seed Collectors is a family drama, and there is plenty of it – perhaps too much for one family. It begins with the death of Aunt Oleander, which allows us an opening to see into the past of the Gardner family: a collection of siblings, cousins, in-laws, and illegitimate children. Their issues are all internal to the family and often pretty incestuous. With Oleander’s death, the family estate is split up, and all of the family’s secrets come out.

On another level, the novel confronts our modern obsessions, including consumerism, fame, eating disorders, and alcoholism. Above all of these issues, it addresses the idea of enlightenment and the sacrifices we are willing to make in order to reach it. Aunt Oleander’s descendants each inherit a mysterious seed pod which may have caused the death of their parents – the pods are compared to the tree of knowledge.  However, in this case the eaters gain the knowledge to let go of the ego – and then they are expelled from the universe. The Seed Collectors above all is a contrast between the desire for enlightenment and the demands of the ego, illustrated with the crassness of reality.

Overall, this novel is a narrative experiment. In one section, Oleander’s niece Bryony is in a classroom, analyzing Jane Austen through the lens of Derrida – it feels like it might be a hint as to how to interpret The Seed Collectors. There are vignettes that read like straight family drama, while several others are written in the voice of a bird with his own language, observing the family. Interspersed throughout are sections that begin with the word “Imagine…” and then give us a scenario to think about. It comes across as pseudo-philosophical pretension but it is still thought-provoking, and it is interesting to see these interludes as the voice of Oleander, hoping for her family’s eventual enlightenment.

There are elements of fantasy, including a book that changes to suit the needs of the reader, as well as some unusual adventures in the Outer Hebrides. These elements seemed unnecessary, so I chose to read them as if they were only happening inside the character’s minds. More important to me were the voices of these characters, which were so real and honest, and made the novel a joy to read. The ending is left somewhat ambiguous, allowing the reader space to really think about what happened, and take our own small step towards enlightenment.

I received this book for free from Canongate and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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