Tag Archives: Botany

The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas: Bursting with ideas

Cover imageThe 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.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert: Not one unnecessary page

Cover imageThere’s been a lot of talk about long books over the past ten days: the Man Booker-winning The Luminaries weighs in at 832 pages and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, for which many of us have been waiting for a decade, stretches to 784 pages. My heart always sinks a little when a big book comes into view on the TBR shelves, partly because there are so many others coming up behind and partly because too often when I reach the end of a long book I feel that a good 100 pages could have been axed. Not so with Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things which just clips the 500-page bar. It’s big in the best sense of the word, spanning a century in which ideas about the world changed incontrovertibly – shockingly for many – and exploring those ideas through the life of the unforgettable Alma Whittaker.

It opens with clever but light-fingered Henry, son of the Apple Magus of Kew, caught stealing precious plants and handed over to the celebrated botanist Sir Joseph Banks for punishment. Banks recognises talent when he sees it and despatches Henry on Captain Cook’s third and final voyage to collect specimens, then to Peru. Henry finally fetches up in Philadelphia, sets up a thriving botanical business, marries a stalwart Dutch woman with a mind as sharp as his own and an education to match, and fathers a daughter, fiercely intelligent and passionate about botany from the age of five. Into this intellectual hothouse comes Prudence, orphaned, beautiful and circumspect – chalk to Alma’s sassy, knowing cheese. Gilbert explores many of the big ideas of the nineteenth century through these two. Prudence marries their tutor, a passionate abolitionist, and dedicates herself to the cause but it is Alma and her passion first for the wide world of botany, then for the moss which grows so abundantly at White Acre – a passion which will eventually take her to the ends of the earth – who is the central figure of the novel.

The Signature of All Things is clearly the product of a great deal of research – even its title is a reference to Boehme’s arcane botanical theories – but it’s research that’s worn lightly and never intrudes. There is a great deal of playful, sly wit reminiscent of Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World and T C Boyle at his best, particularly evident in Henry’s voyages, described in all their stomach churning glory, and Alma’s sojourns in the binding closet. Alma’s character is so well drawn that she is utterly convincing – I felt the need to Google her when I finished the book and was disappointed not to find her. But, then, that’s the point: there was surely more than one unsung Alma out there, passionate and accomplished scientists who remained obediently at home when their mothers asked them to care for their elderly fathers.

So, does your heart sink or leap at the thought of a doorstep-sized novel? Is life too short for more than 300 pages or does it depend on the author? What’s your page limit? Happy to knock off 800 pages in few days or would it take you until Christmas 2014 to finish The Luminaries? I’m interested to know what you think.