Never let it be said that Scarlett Thomas’ novels are pedestrian. The Seed Collectors reads like a mash-up between a Jilly Cooper novel, a botanist’s almanac and a New Age Spiritualist Guide.
Following the death of their Aunt Oleander, the younger generation of the Gardener family, whose parents disappeared while seeking a mystical plant during their offspring’s teenage years, each receive a seed pot, purportedly from the same magical plant which offers those who consume it instant enlightenment and freedom from the cycle of reincarnation, albeit with the side effect of a very painful death. Despite the title and this premise, the narrative focus of The Seed Collectors is less on the plants than on the lives of the younger generation of Gardeners who live outwardly normal lives but lean on drugs, sex, alcohol, eating disorders and shopping addictions to medicate their inner dysfunction.
The novel starts strongly and cohesively, building a credible narrative around characters that you simultaneously dislike and pity. However, just as you begin to wonder if and how Thomas will tie the various storylines together, the novel shifts genres from family drama to spiritualist fantasy, taking much of the tension and a good measure of the pleasure of the read with it.
This insistence upon shifting from the believable to the bonkers is increasingly becoming a feature of Thomas’ work (along with her preference for characters to be tied closely to the Academe, ideally holding a PhD, but studying for an MA at the very least). In some instances, such as The End of Mr Y and PopCo it works brilliantly, but on this occasion I wonder if the read might not have been even more enjoyable if Thomas had stepped out of her comfort zone and forced her characters to face their problems instead of escaping into the realm of fantasy? With characters like Beatrix, the internet savvy granny with a penchant for playing the stock market and googling c(l)ocks; Oliver, the lecturer who fantasizes that his nubile undergraduate student is his daughter and Holly, the teenage anorexic who might just be the most stable member of her family, the novel was lively and entertaining, but with huge potential to go further.
I liked it on the whole, and loved the first three-quarters, but the ending with its stock descent into Scarlett Thomas’ token escapism did leave me feeling a little bit like Jack’s mother when he came home with the magic beans.