The Seed Collectors is Scarlett Thomas’s first novel for quite some time. Her idiosyncratic books, several of which flirt with science fiction, seem to attract a passionate following. I’d read only two before this one: The End of Mr Y, about a PhD student’s encounter with a rare edition of a nineteenth-century writer’s book, wandered off into the realms of quantum physics while Our Tragic Universe explored time and immortality through a book reviewer’s struggles to get to grips with an esoteric commission. Apparently Thomas has been studying for an MSc in ethnobotany which would explain why this new novel is all about a family of botanists whose roots are extraordinarily tangled.
When Great-aunt Oleander dies she leaves Nameste House to Fleur who has helped her run it for some time. For decades Oleander has pulled together a mishmash of spirituality offering a programme which has attracted an endless stream of celebrities. As Fleur frets about how many people will come to the funeral it crosses her mind that Paul McCartney might turn up. Oleander has left each of her great-nieces and nephews a seed pod. No one quite knows what they are but it’s been rumoured that they contain within them a shortcut to enlightenment, followed by instant death. Clematis, Bryony, Charlie and Fleur each have reason to fear these pods – all have lost parents who disappeared while collecting them on the fabled Lost Island in the Pacific Ocean. Clem has planted hers and is making a documentary about it, Charlie has asked his colleagues at Kew to identify his and Bryony has hidden hers, terrified at the prospect of her kids getting their hands on it. After she is handed a book at the funeral by an old friend of Oleander’s who tells her that it unlocks the secret, Fleur is puzzled to find that its pages are blank and sets off to find the mysterious woman who gave it to her.
The Seed Collectors is prefaced with one Gardener family tree and ends with another – the rest of Thomas’s discursive, funny, erudite, sometimes exasperating, novel explains the revisions. There’s a little bit of early Kate Atkinson in Thomas’s writing, with the occasional dash of Iain Banks. She has a striking eye for description: ‘cooling towers huddled together like three fat women on an eternal tea break’; ‘Even Soho has a kind of Sunday feeling, as if it has stayed in its pyjamas all day and just can’t be arsed with all this’ give you an idea. Thomas’s characters, whose internal monologues are often shockingly funny, are wonderfully well drawn, from the insatiable Bryony, creative with her calorific accounting, to Beatrix playing the stock market from her Royal Crescent flat in Bath (she must be doing well) while stumbling upon porn sites, again and again. There’s a multitude of ideas stuffed into this ill-disciplined, ragbag of a novel which rambles about all over the place, including into the downright wacky, and Thomas struggles to keep it all under control at times. It’s the antithesis of the beautifully spare, elegantly constructed novels that I admire so much – but I loved it.