The Seed Collectors - 2015 Reading Challenge

A couple of years ago, I picked up this book in a shop because it had a weird cover and an interesting name. It was called The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas, an author I'd never heard of before. It was one of the best books I read that year. So when I saw that Thomas was releasing a new book in the Allen & Unwin catalogue, it was a no-brainer to ask for a copy. Even several years and several hundred books later, I remembered the way she wrote about religion, philosophy, and relationships. I remembered her beautiful prose. And with her newest book, The Seed Collectors, I was not disappointed.

The Seed Collectors is set largely in Sandwich, England, which is why I chose this as my "Book set somewhere you've always wanted to visit." Even though I lived in England for two years, I've never spent any time exploring the country outside of London, and the southern parts along the coast are supposed to be particularly beautiful.

The basic premise is this: the Gardner family has been made up of botanists and plant-lovers throughout several generations. Aunt Oleander has recently passed away and her vast mansion and yoga retreat, which plays host to many celebrities, is now being handed down. The younger generation of Gardners is bequeathed mysterious seed pods that may finally help them uncover the secret behind the disappearance of four family members many years before.

While Thomas's newest novel is what I would classify literary fiction, there's a lot of accessibility to it. There is a huge cast of characters of all different ages, sexes, backgrounds, and creeds, and each one is developed and fully realized on the page.

Take for instance, Bryony. Probably the most frustrating and rage-inducing of characters. Married to the unfathomably patient James, she struggles with her weight and alcoholism, and spends most of the story trying to get over her obsession with her cousin's husband Oliver, as well as to curb her shopping and food addictions. She spends ridiculous amounts of money on clothing, makeup, and shoes and despite trying to get fit at the gym, she lies about how much she's actually eating by saying certain things 'don't count', like food consumed on a train. When she's told by her personal trainer (who mistakenly thinks she's not eating enough) that her body needs carbs to help her lose weight with her workout routine, this is the sort of thing that happens:

When she leaves the gym she goes straight to Sainsbury's and buys a French stick, a large bar of milk chocolate and a jar of strawberry jam. And also a packet of six large jam doughnuts. And a family bag of sea salt and balsamic vinegar crisps. Oh, and a loaf of wholewheat bread and some wholewheat pasta.

I don't think I've ever read a character that had such infuriatingly low self-control, but while I spent most of my time yelling at her, I couldn't get around the fact that she was a character that certainly induced an emotional reaction.

To be honest, I'm finding it difficult to sum up this book. Thomas writes so brilliantly about the little things in life, incredible observations about how we use our time, the difference between knowledge and enlightenment, the sacrifices we make that we think are for the people we love but are really just to make ourselves feel better. As in The End of Mr. Y, she also writes beautifully and insightfully about religion:

Now when she looks at it the crucifixion goes from being painful and real to being something different entirely, not a joke, exactly, because she realises how much he needed to concentrate to do it, and how much it was supposed to mean, and not a trick exactly...Something like a proof. This is how little the body means. You can do anything to me and it does not matter, because I am not of this world and beyond it I will always be free.

As with much of the literary fiction I've read, The Seed Collectors was driven almost entirely by its characters and not at all by the plot, which, of course, makes it difficult to summarize. But in saying that, I am much more drawn to character-driven stories anyway, and this is one of the best I've read in a while.

Reader be warned, if incest or infidelity ruin books for you, then I would steer clear of this one. But if you're looking for a truly interesting read with a fresh perspective -- and the kind of observations that make you gasp a little and say, "That's so true" -- then Thomas's new novel may just be the one for you.