Every Heart a Doorway, set at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, is a novel (novella?) that I felt was more about the allegory than the story, though Cory Doctorow feels that it’s the other way around. Not that I didn’t like this (beautifully-written) book: I did, a whole lot. It just felt less about the plot or even the characters and more about the ideas. There’s a fairy-tale feel to Every Heart a Doorway, which is appropriate, given its subject: the Home for Wayward Children is a school for teenagers who have traveled to other realms via magic portals but had to leave, for whatever reason or non-reason, and now find themselves back in our world, each yearning for the place they left, the place where they felt right/understood/at home.
Near the beginning of the book we meet Nancy, a new student at the school: she’s been to the Halls of the Dead and wants to go back. Her roommate, Sumi, tells her she should know better: “You can’t go back. Once they throw you out, you can’t go back,” Sumi says, but others at the school share Nancy’s hope (26). As the book progresses we get to learn bits about where other students have been: the other worlds they’ve traveled to are roughly divided into worlds governed by Logic and worlds governed by Nonsense, with Wickedness and Virtue as the other main “compass points” by which the worlds are categorized, though there are other characteristics too, like Rhyme and Linearity, or Whimsy and Wild. A pair of twins went to a world with wild moors and vampires and a Doctor-Frankenstein-ish mad scientist; another girl went to a place with “boys made of glass whose kisses had cut her lips”; when someone else tells about the world she went to, it’s “a majestic, epic tale of spider princesses and tiny dynasties”; a boy who turns out to be able to make bones dance went to a world of “happy, dancing skeletons” that he describes as “pretty sunshiny, but sort of sunshine by way of Día de los Muertos” (56, 95, 110).
There’s a lot in this book about the tensions of growing up, about parents like Nancy’s who say they want their “real daughter back,” parents who want the children they knew and can’t/won’t figure out how to let those children be the people they’re becoming. There’s a lot, too, about identity and self-determination and belonging/not-belonging, and kids/teens figuring out who they are: Nancy is asexual and talks about the challenges of explaining that to her peers; there’s also a trans boy, Kade, who talks about how his trip to a Fairyland was the first time he was properly seen as himself, rather than as a girl. Every student ended up in a realm that was right for them: as Jack (short for Jacqueline), one of the twins, puts it, “for the first time, we didn’t have to pretend to be something we weren’t. We just got to be” (57). All of this worked for me, moreso than the other aspect of the story, which is a horror-inflected mystery plot, though it wasn’t bad, just not what I found the most appealing (and hard to talk about without being spoilery!).
If you’re curious, you can read an excerpt of this book over at io9.
March 12th, 2017
For years, until it stopped happening, my favorite thing to do on New Year’s Eve was to go to the Pratt campus here in Brooklyn, which has a steam-powered electricity-generating power plant. On New Year’s Eve, the chief engineer would rig up his collection of historic steam whistles outside: there was a steam calliope, and whistles from trains and boats, and at midnight they’d go off together with billows of steam, a variety of pitches. You can find videos online but they don’t capture how it felt to be there surrounded by the sound, not just hearing the whistles but feeling the vibrations from them in your body, especially the biggest and deepest one. I thought about that thrum when reading The Chimes, a dystopian novel which features a massive instrument called the Carillon, whose sounding brings the people of England to their knees on a daily basis, and whose vibrations mean loss: of written language, of birds, which died when Chimes started, and also, daily, of memory.
The Chimes is disorienting at first, and it’s meant to be, and it works: we’re with our narrator, Simon, as he makes his way to London from Essex: his mother, who recently died, has sent him to find a woman named Netty, and that’s about all he can remember about that: he has no idea who Netty might be or why he’s meant to find her. We learn about this future England in bits and pieces: there’s no written language; people communicate largely in music and in the hand-signals tied to the notes of solfege. Memory doesn’t work properly: people have their bodymemory, their muscle-memory of the work they do, and they are able to sort of/sometimes remember important things by storing the memories in objects, and music helps keep some memories, too, though mostly just place-memory, the route to take from point A to point B, communicated in song. Children all learn musical instruments, and every morning everyone sings Onestory, a song about how the Order (the group who built/compose for/play the Carillon) brought the country together after a cataclysmic event called Allbreaking, which seems to have turned much of London to rubble and sent the country back to a pre-Industrial-Revolution kind of existence.
In London, Simon finds Netty but doesn’t know what help she’s meant to give him, and she doesn’t seem too inclined to be helpful anyway, so he follows a sound/feeling he has to the Thames, which leads him to a hunk of palladium in the muck: palladium, we learn, is what the Carillon is made of, and packs/pacts of scavengers in the city collect it and sell it to the Order. Simon falls into one of these pacts, with a boy named Lucien and a few others. Lucien is blind, but leads the pact through the tunnels under London with his extra-sharp hearing; they have their daily routines and each other but not much else. But then another member of the pact, a girl named Clare, tells Simon she hears him and Lucien talking at night. Simon doesn’t remember this so doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but then, slowly, he figures it out, and the plot turns into an adventure/quest, with Simon and Lucien setting out from London together on a mission.
After reading a bunch of realistic fiction, this book was exactly what I was in the mood for. The writing is gorgeous and immersive, and it was a delight to be absorbed in the book’s world. I loved things like this description of Chimes, early in the book: “Chimes is like a fist. It unclutches, opens. Starts like a fist, but then bursts like a flowering. Who can say if it’s very slow or very fast? Chimes is always different, and even after the thousands of times, I couldn’t venture to say what it’s like” (12). The adventure/quest narrative plays out somewhat predictably, though there was a twist I totally didn’t see coming, and by that time I was invested enough in the story and characters that the predictability didn’t bother me. I mean, it’s OK for certain stories to fit certain shapes. I cried, multiple times, and when I wasn’t crying I was busy being pleased by the themes of the book, by its focus on memory and story and how narrative shapes things, and how narrative opens up possibilities. Simon is, basically, a writer, someone who observes and wonders and imagines and remembers as best he can, and I like how the book explores all of that. I did wonder (as I sometimes do when reading this particular kind of dystopia that’s set in our world but focuses on one geographical location, like The Hunger Games did), about the rest of the world: does the Order’s power stretch beyond England? Or is the rest of the world like, “Oh, London. Used to be a nice place, and then it was a war zone. Now it’s, like, medieval? *shrug*” But mostly I was willing to suspend disbelief and just go with it.
Also: I love this page on the author’s website: The World of The Chimes – A Non-Exhaustive Handbook.
Attachments is not my favorite Rainbow Rowell novel, but it was a quick read, and I was in the mood for something light, and it was fun enough that I was willing to overlook its flaws.
The books starts with an email exchange between two women who are best friends and work at a newspaper: it’s 1999 and the paper has only recently given email accounts to its employees, and Beth and Jennifer use theirs to have private/funny/fun conversations during their downtime. They know they’re not meant to be using their work email for personal chats like this, and they know everything they send is being monitored, but they’re not overly concerned about it. We then switch to Lincoln, who lives with his mom and works in the IT department at the same newspaper where Jennifer and Beth work. His job, in fact, is to monitor the company’s email: there’s a piece of software that flags messages containing certain words, or that exceed a certain size or frequency, and he’s supposed to review them and take the appropriate action, which is usually just giving the emailer(s) a warning. Beth and Jennifer’s messages keep getting flagged because they write to one another so much, but Lincoln is charmed by their friendship, and by the messages’ humor and kindness and heart, and he doesn’t send them a warning: instead, he finds himself looking forward to their exchanges being flagged so he can read them, so he can get a little window into their lives. He knows he should stop, but he can’t seem to make himself, and after a while he realizes he’s totally falling for Beth, despite the fact that she has a boyfriend (who isn’t reliably present for her in their relationship) and despite the fact that he’s never even seen her. Beth, meanwhile, has a chance to engage in some stalker-y behavior of her own as the story progresses, and does, which I guess is meant to balance things out? (It was funny to read this book relatively soon after reading Crosstalk by Connie Willis, which is also a book centered around co-workers and also features a basement-office-IT-guy who knows more than the female protagonist does/withholds information from her at some points. I was willing to not be bothered by it in that book, too.)
I like how we get to see Lincoln grow up over the course of this book: his mom is overbearing, and he dated someone in high school/early college who was way more assertive than he was and he’s never really gotten over that relationship even though he is now, like, 28, and he’s never really figured out who he is and what he wants. I like the depiction of the arrival of email and the Internet in a workplace that hasn’t had it before: as far as the company bosses are concerned, it’s suddenly “impossible to distinguish a roomful of people working diligently from a roomful of people taking the What-Kind-of-Dog-Am-I? online personality quiz,” and they’re dismayed about it (11). I was amused by the throwaway references to things like Zima and Orange Julius and appletinis—oh, 1999/2000. I also really like the beautiful descriptive writing about a crisp October day near the end of the book: big chunks of the book take place either in the newspaper offices or in people’s heads, and I appreciated the bits that were views of the outside world the characters are moving through.
March 4th, 2017
Despite it coming highly recommended from a close friend, I found myself feeling sort of resistant to this book of 19 short stories at first. I think partly it was that I’d just read another collection of stories (Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith) and had very much enjoyed their mostly-first-person narratives, and the fact that this book is narrated in the third person initially felt flat, especially in the first story, where I found myself impatient with reading about what the characters looked like. Also, this book felt quite bleak: we see its characters in a whole lot of moments of self-hate and sadness and stasis, and I was feeling bleak enough myself before I started reading. But as I kept making my way through it, Core’s style grew on me. I can see why she has a back-cover blurb from Marie Calloway; these stories and the ones in Calloway’s what purpose did i serve in your life feel like they inhabit a similar sort of space populated by characters struggling with self-doubt and insecurity and want/need and the dynamics of dealing with other people. When I finished the book I read it again, and I liked it more on my second read—maybe because I knew what I was in for.
There is a lot in this book about being young and feeling stuck in your circumstances, and also a lot about being a writer and feeling stuck in your work, and also a lot about being human and feeling stuck in your self/in your desires, but there are also stories with a sense of possibility. In my favorite story, Historic Tree Nurseries, a queer couple consisting of a younger woman and an older woman drive to Ohio to adopt a dog: there is a lot of tension, but the ending is a moment of something like grace.
Even in the stories I liked less, there were a whole lot of good sentences/phrases: someone asks a character what it’s like being a teenager, and her response is that “Everyone wants what you have so they try to control you” (17). Another character is “addicted to her own charm” (29). Someone thinks about how she “hates the way people in her neighborhood seem to lecture each other on dates” (78). When two characters get on a plane after a series of stressful experiences, there’s this, which I like a whole lot:
And it was a surprising relief to enter the familiar capsule, to know that now nothing was expected of them. Even the lift-off was pleasant, easy to succumb to. They simply sat there, letting the rumbling machine have them, then the sky. (102-103)
And there is something really satisfying about a lot of the dialogue, which feels very funny and true, like this conversation between a pair of best friends in “Another Breed”:
Cory could have smiled or sobbed but did neither. “Am I a needy person?”
“Am I the neediest person in your life?
“No. You’re just the most willing to express it.” (48)
February 25th, 2017
When I finished reading Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith, I immediately went back to the beginning and started it again, which is something I’ve done before with books of poems but not so much with collections of short stories, but for some reason with this one I felt like I should, and I’m glad I did. I think partly I felt like I would enjoy this book more on a re-read, which is true: this may say more about my reading style and/or the kind of week I’d been having than about the book, which consists of 24 pieces, alternating between fiction (short stories) and nonfiction (brief pieces about the importance of public libraries, with input/personal stories from various writers and other people Smith knows). I liked some bits more than I liked others, and I feel like I would have appreciated this even more if I had a personal connection to any of the writers who serve as touchstones in some of the fictional pieces (DH Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Robert Herrick), but overall I really like Smith’s style, her allusiveness and wordplay and humor and smarts.
The fictional pieces in this book are themselves often about books, or about narrative, or about writers, or about memory, and are also often about possibility, about an ordinary day becoming something out of the ordinary in some way, and about the larger sense of opening or possibility that’s tied to memory and story and also to stepping outside normal routines. Highlights for me include the first story, “Last,” which starts with clichés about endings that turn literal and includes a whole bunch of wordplay and etymology,”The Definite Article,” which is about Regent’s Park and is full of really excellent details, and “The Human Claim,” which includes DH Lawrence and credit card fraud and Google Street View, and totally works. There are so many good phrases and descriptions and sentences and paragraphs in these and the rest of the stories in this book: a ride on a very crowded train, for example, is “an exercise in aloofness” (6). A mild winter day in London is “one of the days in January that spring sends ahead of itself” (157). And oh I love this sentence, about reading about Robert Herrick:
There wasn’t much known about this poet’s actual life, the book said, other than that his father killed himself by jumping out of a fourth-floor window, so the book was a lot about what it was like to be on the edge of poverty in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the part of London called Cheapside, and about how the houses jutted out from themselves above their first floors, overhung themselves like mushrooms, or galleons, and how until 1661 the people in London had been duty-bound to see to the lighting of their own streets, required by law to hang out lit candles on dark nights. (174)
In the nonfiction bits, I loved Sophie Mayer’s description of the public library as “the best possible shared space, a community of consent — an anarcho-syndicalist collective where each person is pursuing their own aim (education, entertainment, affect, rest) with respect to others, through the best possible medium of the transmission of ideas, feelings, and knowledge: the book” (75-76). Also, this, from Emma Wilson, on going to the library as a child: “Choosing books each week was like laying out the dreams I could have” (124). I have had public library cards from the library wherever I’ve lived from childhood on; I got one in Cambridge, MA in college even though I was only there for a summer and I remember reading Philip Pullman and Walter Benjamin sprawled on the grass in the park; more recently, so many of the books I’ve read over the past decade-plus have been checked out from the Brooklyn Public Library, some that I’ve sought out specifically and others that I’ve just found by chance on the shelves. It’s preaching to the choir to tell me that public libraries expand horizons and provide important services for a huge range of people, but I did enjoy reading about other people’s library-moments and library-memories.
February 18th, 2017
When I was about thirty pages into this book, I told my boyfriend I felt like it was going to be an unsubtle comedy, and I think it pretty much was, but that was totally what I was in the mood for. I wanted a fast-paced and plot-driven book that I was going to be totally engrossed in, and this book was exactly that: I regularly found myself completely absorbed in it on the subway or at lunchtime, and definitely stayed up past my bedtime reading it one night, only to decide to stop before the end so I’d have the pleasure of more of the book on my morning commute. This is Connie Willis in To Say Nothing of the Dog mode, more or less, and it’s a whole lot of fun.
The book is set in the near future and centers around characters working at Commspan, a smartphone manufacturer that’s trying to build the next big thing to try to compete with Apple. Briddey’s boyfriend, Trent, has just asked her to get an EED (empathy-enhancing device? the abbreviation isn’t spelled out anywhere that I noticed) with him: it’s a surgical procedure that will supposedly let the two of them sense each other’s feelings. He says he wants to propose to her, but wants to be connected via the EED first, so she’ll know how much he loves her. But, um, they’ve been dating for six weeks, and I decided on page 6, when it’s mentioned that Trent drives a Porsche, that he’s clearly going to be a jerk with ulterior motives. Briddey’s female co-workers are all telling her how excited they are for her, but another co-worker, C.B, a genius tech guy who works by himself in a lab in the company’s basement, keeps trying to tell her that maybe elective brain surgery is not such a great idea, for a whole lot of reasons. But Briddey and Trent get the surgery anyway, and it’s no surprise to C.B., or to the reader, that there are unintended consequences, which Briddey then has to deal with.
I had a few issues with Crosstalk, like the fact that by the end of the book I still had no idea what Briddey’s job actually was, despite that she’s apparently important enough to have an assistant. (Trent, meanwhile, has a secretary, which was a difference in terminology that felt gendered and weird.) And C.B. is apparently the only tech guy in the company? Or are there other tech people but he just works on his own? Also, this book is really straight: we hear about a bunch of other couples who have gotten the EED, and all of them seem to be male/female, which was a minor annoyance for me: it would have been easy to have the Commspan co-worker who tells Briddey how transformative the EED has been in her relationship to have been in a relationship with a woman rather than a man, or for any of the celebrities name-dropped to have been in a same-sex partnership. And some of the surgery’s unintended consequences and the explanations around them felt a bit thrown together or problematic, in ways it’s hard to talk about without being spoiler-y. But overall, I was so swept along by the plot that I didn’t really care.
February 12th, 2017
The Bone People is another book that was recommended to me as pre-New-Zealand reading, and I spent the past week finding it pretty hard to put down, to the point (well, actually, this isn’t so unusual for me) where I was reading it while walking down the hallway between the elevator and the door to the office at work (prompting a maintenance/construction worker to grin at me and say, “wow, that must be a really good book”). It is a complicated book: poetic and twisty, with language that is sometimes fun/playful, sometimes gorgeous, and a plot that goes from unsettling to dark and then veers into magic in a way that totally works, in some ways, but also is hard to reconcile with what came before. I don’t think I can talk about this book without some spoilers, so if you don’t want to know some significant plot details, maybe stop reading now.
The book starts with disorientation, with a section called “The End at the Beginning,” in which the reader doesn’t have much idea what’s going on, but in which there’s this, which Sam Jordison in the Guardian books blog holds up as an example of bad writing, but which I rather like, both for the sentiment it offers and for how it ultimately fits into the story:
They were nothing more than people, by themselves. Even paired, any pairing, they would have been nothing more than people by themselves. But all together, they have become the heart and muscles and mind of something perilous and new, something strange and growing and great.
Together, all together, they are the instruments of change. (4)
So, OK, the story. We meet Kerewin, who is a wealthy and isolated artist who finds herself unable to create new work. She lives in a lovely and idiosyncratic tower she’s had built on the coast; her family is part Maori and part European (though she says at one point she feels “all Maori”); she’s estranged from her relatives (76). One day she comes home to find a child in her tower: this is Simon, who’s around seven years old and mute; he’s not Maori, but his foster father, Joe, (mostly) is. Simon, we learn, was the sole survivor of a shipwreck a few years back; Joe and his family took him in, but then Joe’s wife and biological son both died, leaving Joe to raise Simon on his own. Joe drinks rather a lot (as does Kerewin) and regularly beats Simon, who often skips school and has a habit of stealing. Joe and Simon enter Kerewin’s life, breaking her solitude: “I am in limbo,” she thinks to herself at one point earlier in the book, “and in limbo there are no races, no prizes, no changes, no chances”: well, now there is change (34). But then there is a crisis, or a few crises: Joe beats Simon so badly that he ends up in a coma; Kerewin partly blames herself, and oh, she also seems to have stomach cancer, and nearly dies. Simon does end up recovering somewhat, though his hearing has been damaged, and he just wants to reunite with Joe and Kerewin. And here’s where the magic comes in: Joe, after serving his jail sentence, meets a Maori elder who has apparently been waiting for his arrival: the elder guards a sacred stone and Joe is to be its new guardian. Kerewin, in self-imposed exile awaiting death, has an encounter with a strange being, after which she is cured. Kerewin and Simon and Joe are all reunited, and Kerewin is reconciled with her family for good measure. This is the part I have trouble with. If we take care of the spirit of the land, the end of the book seems to be saying, the spirit of the land may take care of us. And also: if we work at building a community, that community can be there for us. Both of which are heartening and hopeful ideas, but at the same time, a story that ends with the reunion of an abused child and the person who abused him (and others who failed to stop the abuse, despite knowing about it) makes me feel pretty uncomfortable, as does the way the book doesn’t really present any better alternatives. Read more allegorically and less literally, with Joe representing Maori culture, Simon representing European culture, and Kerewin representing a mix of them, maybe the ending works better/differently: the three can come together with others to build something that is a mix of all their perspectives and that has a strength that’s tied to the land itself. But that allegorical reading feels like a stretch to me, after the realistic brutality and violence of the earlier sections of the book.
Jo Walton wrote about this book on tor.com back in 2009; I like her post a lot, though she feels differently about the ending.
Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer
Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2011 (Originally William Heinemann Ltd., 1956)
January 29th, 2017
I don’t generally read romance novels (semi-exception: I did have fun with Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate books, though after the first one they didn’t feel that romance-y) and when I started this one I wasn’t sure I was going to be into it. And I do sort of think that if I were to want to find a romance novel I would really really like, my best bet would be something more modern and less straight. But happily, Sprig Muslin isn’t actually that heavy on the romance: it’s more focused on a madcap series of (mis)adventures, with romance as a frame.
Early in the book we meet Sir Gareth Ludlow, who’s 35, rich, handsome, and single: the woman he loved died in a carriage accident seven years earlier, and he’s never loved anyone since. But as a sole surviving son, he feels like it’s his duty to marry and have a family so the Ludlow name/line won’t end with him. He’s therefore decided to propose to an old friend, Lady Hester Theale, who’s smart and kind but rather plain; she’s 29 and her (fairly horrid/overbearing) father, sisters, brother, and sister-in-law are sure she’ll never get any suitable marriage offers now. Gareth is pretty sure Hester will say yes: I mean, she’ll get out of her unpleasant home situation, he’ll provide for her, and they’re friends, right? But (I don’t feel it’s spoilery to say this, because it’s on the back cover) Hester refuses. And meanwhile, there’s Amanda to reckon with.
Gareth meets Amanda in an inn as he’s en route to propose to Hester: she’s arguing with the landlord (who won’t give her a room) and he’s shocked to see a clearly well-off young lady traveling without a chaperon. He doesn’t know what her story might be, but he feels that as a gentleman, it’s his duty to get her back home safely. Except she won’t tell him her last name. She’s sixteen, and she’s run off, she explains, because her grandfather won’t consent to her marrying her love, who’s a 24-year-old soldier named Neil. Neil won’t elope with her, which leaves her at an impasse: she’s decided that running off and being a governess or maid or something will show her grandfather that she can take care of herself, and that he should listen to what she wants. Gareth takes Amanda under his care as he tries to figure out how he can reunite her with her grandfather, but meanwhile she keeps trying to give him the slip because she’s set on seeing her plan of independence through. Hilarity ensues, not least in the interplay between Gareth’s amused and avuncular interactions with Amanda and her indignant /stubborn/scheming attempts to run off. And of course, Hester’s refusal of Gareth’s proposal ends up not being the last we see of her. This was a fun light read, full of entertaining dialogue and pleasing period slang and detail.
January 21st, 2017
Empty Streets, which was originally published in Czech in 2004, is the third of Michal Ajvaz’s novels to be published in English translation by Dalkey Archive Press, and the third that I’ve read and enjoyed. This one is set in Prague in the summer of 1999: when it opens we meet our unnamed narrator, a writer who’s working on a novella but is finding himself buried in paper and unable to tame the story he’s trying to write, which is a “mass of restless, elusive, metamorphosing, barely legible pages” that’s taken over his desk and is “turning into a monstrosity” (4). He takes a walk to take a break, and cuts through a dump on a construction site; he steps on a strange wooden double-trident, and finds himself dreaming up fantastical uses for it as he tries to figure out what it is/does/is for. And then he sees the symbol again, as a screensaver on the computer of a designer he knows, who tells him the story of how he rents a room in a villa from an old man, and saw the double trident appear and disappear again in a framed picture. After which the narrator gets a call from the designer’s landlord, Jakub Jonáš, who tells him the picture is a portrait of his 24-year-old daughter, Viola, who disappeared two years ago.
Despite his initial reluctance, the narrator finds himself agreeing to look for Jonáš’s daughter: as the novel progresses, he finds himself caught up in the search, crossing from one part of the city to another following different leads and hearing different stories that might be related to Viola and/or the strange symbol and/or other possible mysteries that surface along the way. I like the way the stories gradually unspool, the way one person leads the narrator to another and then the way that person leads him on to the next. I found myself thinking, a bit, of the TV show Search Party, with our narrator as analogous to Alia Shawkat’s Dory: they’re each at a point of being stuck in life/work, and for each of them, a mystery rouses them to action, though there’s rather less melodrama in Empty Streets. It’s hard to say more without getting into the lovely convolutions of this book’s plot, which I think are best experienced without knowing much beforehand.
So I’ll just close with an image I like a whole lot: Ajvaz’s narrator has been watching a TV show in which “people at a mansion in (probably) Scotland untangle problems in their love affairs” (26). He then looks out the window, to other apartments on his street, and notices that “In almost every window the light gained and lost intensity to the same rhythm, as the residents of the Scottish mansion moved from the darkness of the drawing room to the terrace and back again” (28).
The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas
Soft Skull Press (Counterpoint), 2016 (Originally Canongate, 2015)
December 31st, 2016
The Seed Collectors is the sort of book that starts with a family tree, which signals that it’s probably going to be a sprawling family drama, which is not generally my favorite kind of book. And it is a sprawling family drama, sort of, with emphasis on the drama and a darkly satirical mood, but it’s also about the self and desire and people looking for enlightenment and/or fulfillment and/or oblivion in the various ways that people do. I am a little conflicted about it: I found it a whole lot of fun to read, and very hard to put down, but there are ways in which it’s a bit of a mess (there’s a lot going on, a few loose plot threads, and I really don’t know how to feel about the ending). It definitely has not displaced Our Tragic Universe as my favorite Scarlett Thomas book, but it’s the sort of book where I finished reading and then kept mulling over it.
Early in the book we learn that Oleander Gardener has recently died: she ran a successful yoga/meditation/wellness retreat called Namaste House, and her relatives (largely her great-nieces and great-nephew) are wondering who’s going to inherit it. Much of the family has a botanical bent: Charlie works at Kew Gardens; his sister Clem (short for Clematis) makes documentaries about plants; their cousin Bryony isn’t particularly into nature, but is married to a nature-writer. We get snippets of these family members’ lives: Bryony and her husband James and the kids, Holly and Ash; Clem and her husband Ollie puttering about at home; Charlie going on a date. We also meet Fleur, who has lived and worked at Namaste House since she was young, and learn that her mother, Bryony’s mother, and Clem and Charlie’s mother were “famous botanists,” or “famous-ish” ones, or, rather, “famous-ish mainly for disappearing while on the trail of a miracle plant that never existed, or possibly killed them all” (5).
Also early in the book, we hear Clem being interviewed on the radio, talking about hapaxanthic plants and how they “put all their energy into flowering—or, in other words, attempting to reproduce—and there’s nothing left for anything else. Their roots wither and die.” (4). Hm. Are we only talking about flowers here?
The narration of The Seed Collectors jumps from character to character, shifting focus and letting us learn things about all of them. We see Bryony (who overindulges in food, wine, and shopping), Charlie (who is pretty insufferably self-centered), Ollie (who is a professor and distressed by his inability to have children), Fleur (who’s the most self-aware and likable of the bunch) and more: Bryony’s daughter Holly (who’s very good at tennis), a pop star client of Namaste House named Skye Turner, and even a robin in the garden (whose vocabulary is quite idiosyncratic). Interspersed with the character-focused bits there are also bits about mysticism and enlightenment and oh, the seed pods of that miracle plant, which does turn out to exist, and is indeed deadly, but has quite an interesting effect before it kills you. The mysticism is largely focused on the idea of a cosmic unity, everyone being the same/everyone just being different aspects of one another, which makes the narrative style make sense: if there is this unity, then of course the robin in the garden has a bit of the story, along with everyone else.
I like how this book mixes humor and loveliness in with everything else: there’s some satire-of-academia bits that are great, a passage about a malfunctioning electric toothbrush display that made me laugh out loud, a rant about how annoying the keyboard-effect noises on phones are, a magical book that’s on the edge of twee but isn’t, a description of Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern, and bits like this: “They walk around the end of the pier, where Bryony gets a text message welcoming her to Belgium. This happens all around the coast here. More often it’s France, which at least you can see from the end of the pier. This is usually funny enough to tell people, but she’s too hungover, and Granny won’d understand anyway” (190-191). Or this: “The doorway to Fleur’s cottage smells of lapsang souchong, black cardamom, and roses, which is a bit how Fleur herself smells, although with Fleur there are layers and layers of scents, each one more rare and strange than the last” (75).