seed collectors

The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas review – a fantastical family saga

The humour blossoms but relationships are thorny in this story about the Gardener clan of botanists

Photograph: Getty Images/SuperStock RM

Photograph: Getty Images/SuperStock RM

Last modified on Thu 22 Feb 2018 12.58 GMT

F ew fiction writers are as relentlessly, vivaciously surprising as Scarlett Thomas. Many elements in The Seed Collectors are recognisable from her previous novels: a university setting, the mysteries of consciousness, French thinkers, alarmingly rough sex between refreshingly dislikable characters. The fantastical-botanical saga of the sprawling, tangled Gardener clan takes in all these things, but while you can feel at home in Thomas’s world, you’re never strictly comfortable: the furnishings may be familiar, but the chairs have all been moved around and the biscuits are probably spiked.

We start with a family tree, full of names like Plum and Ash. Almost all the Gardeners are named after plants, in keeping with the previous generation’s vocation as “famous botanists. Or famous-ish. Or famous-ish mainly for disappearing while on the trail of a miracle plant that probably never existed, or possibly killed them all.” (This mystery of the lost Gardeners and their miracle plant is the animating puzzle of the book.) Then we get an actual tree, the walking palm: “When it has had enough of being where it is, it quietly uproots itself, like a long-wronged wife, and walks away at a speed of just over one metre per year.”

This description is coming from the radio, on which Clem Gardener is talking about a documentary she has made, and is being listened to by her friend Fleur, protege of Clem’s recently deceased great-aunt. It’s a precipitous tumble into the technique that defines The Seed Collectors, skipping from consciousness to consciousness so that it is never wholly obvious whose story this is. Thomas has made these experiments before, notably in The End of Mr Y, where a bit of sci-fi apparatus allowed protagonist Ariel Manto to slip her way into other characters’ minds – a graphic illustration of the way essayist Leslie Jamison has described empathy as “always perched between gift and invasion”.

But The End of Mr Y did still have a protagonist. The Seed Collectors goes one step further in its roaming, rangy sympathies, creeping over everything like a rhizomatous weed. Thomas occupies the brain space of more than a dozen characters. We are given the perspective of burned-out starlet Skye Turner, and compulsive consumer Briony Gardener (when we accompany her on a booze-and-shopping binge in Selfridges, our intimacy with her self-destruction makes for a scene of painful horror). We become a robin who thinks in lines of thrilling vorticist poetry: “He is wick! He is fire-swift! He can also sit in stilth and ro for longtimes and mull.” We even, obliquely, hear the view of the plants. “We only really do what plants make us do,” points out one of the novel’s many voices. The vegetable world, hints Thomas, has its own devices – like the walking palm, creeping slowly to a time beyond human reach.

That palm, by the way, is real, even if its abilities are exaggerated. Thomas is meticulous in her use of reality, and every time she names something – from a bottle of wine to a brand of knitting yarn – it is exactly right for the scene. Guardian readers might especially appreciate the character with a column called “Natural Dad”, published “on page four of the glossy magazine of the biggest-selling liberal weekend newspaper”.

These are a lot of ideas to hold together and it’s Thomas’s writing that unifies them. Her prose is splendidly alive, full of unexpected phrases and delicious cadences. She is also very funny. Not just funny for a book that opens with a Nietzsche epigraph, but Wodehouse funny or Pratchett funny in parts. And like Pratchett, Thomas blends her flippancy and her philosophy perfectly. Grass in the Hebrides is like “the pubes of the universe”, she writes, deftly mixing the salty and sublime. A character on a paleo diet tries to get even his sexual fantasies in line with his confused ideas about human evolution, leading to probably the first (and definitely the most hilarious) pleistocene wank in literature.

But if there is something to dislike in The Seed Collectors, that something is the sex. The male characters are all aggressive in their sexuality, the female characters all feverishly courting their own obliteration in rape fantasies. People may push and pull against what it means to be a man or a woman, but the possibilities she allows them – on this plane of consciousness at least – are bleakly uniform. And in a novel so fecund with invention, it is regrettable that this is all the intercourse Thomas could imagine.

The humour blossoms but relationships are thorny in this story about the Gardener clan of botanists