Scarlett Thomas’s latest release, “The Seed Collectors,” is no fairytale, although the title evokes images of Jack and the Beanstalk, with magical seeds whose fruits raise you to the heavens. No, the characters in this novel live high above the rest of the world, safe from worries and the need for money or material things (oh, what a utopia).
The seed collectors are the Gardener family, a clan of botanists with fitting names. We enter the story as Oleander, the matriarch of the family, dies. Oleander leaves behind the Namaste House, a yoga retreat, as well as her collection of magical seedpods which hold the secret to enlightenment.
Several years ago, many family members disappeared on their quest to find the seed collection, leaving behind a group of relatives who are failing to flower. The group comes to grips with their matriarch’s inheritance through several events – first the funeral, then the birthday of a child and a trip to a few Scottish islands.
Thomas is truly gifted when it comes to writing internal monologues. Throughout the story, we’re immersed in each character’s mental landscape and vivid imagery – from walking palms to an electric toothbrush gone mad. But we also see themes of insatiable hunger and desire, a key lesson in the tale.
One thing that really struck me about this book is my utter dislike for nearly every character. Each is selfish, prejudiced and downright mean. The heir to the Namaste House, Fleur, is the only likeable character.
Thomas makes it quite clear that worldly pleasures are misguided. The only true pleasure can be found in the mystical seeds. But here’s the thing about these seeds: they enlighten you, then kill you – in one swift move. They remove you not only from this world, but also from the death cycle and rebirth.
Just like enlightenment in Buddhism, reaching this state of nirvana leads you to return to nothingness – no self, no rebirth.
“The Seed Collectors” plays heavily on Buddhist and Hindu themes, insinuating that the world is merely an illusion and that we see what we want to see.
But we also see that none of the characters in the book are able to be happy. We hear hints of interesting events and people, but that’s about the end of it. Foreshadowed events are simply left offstage. Characters are peppered throughout the tale, but given no real introduction until later in the story.
The author steers the reader towards an aggressive view against the world, and many of the storylines leave readers with more questions than answers.
“The Seed Collectors” was an interesting read, but it left me feeling a bit empty and unsatisfied. I’m led to believe that characters in the book are unable to find happiness because they have not found the seeds of enlightenment, which will kill you as soon as they enlighten you anyway.
Ultimately, fantastical imagery and wonderfully written internal monologues isn’t enough to offset the frustration of the unanswered questions and dissatisfaction in the tale’s end.