The Seed Collectors
by Scarlett Thomas, Canongate, £14.99
‘If you want a really good time, go into a church,” a character suggests two thirds through Scarlett Thomas’s new novel, The Seed Collectors. It’s not just the quality of the sermons that’s exciting this character, however, but also the transformative effects of a liquid produced by steeping a mysterious seed in “the tears of one of the Enlightened Ones”. A little later in the novel, a woman wonders if her partner would be happier as a Catholic priest.
Theological questions surface throughout the book and, like most fiction writers, Thomas is especially drawn to the teleological argument for the existence of God. In the past, Thomas has spoken of her belief that fiction is a good way of addressing theological concerns. Here two characters have a long discussion about God only to conclude that there is a Creator, but after he created man, man created the universe. This, they believe, can be the only answer to the question of theodicy.
With each novel, Thomas’s ambitions have grown larger, and this is her most sophisticated. In the past she has been described as belonging to a dubious genre known as “slipstream”, which merges fantasy with literary fiction. While there are still fantasy trappings in this novel (magic books, deadly seeds), there’s a newfound maturity in her writing. Her characters are more disturbed than ever, but her adept use of the third person creates a greater distance between her creations and the reader, allowing us to see more clearly the skilful construction at work.
Thomas is not afraid to alienate with her cataloguing of modern ills and her character’s addictions, whether to alcohol, shopping, food, exercise or depravity. Existence is shown to be an endless endurance test, with the search for any form of salvation being the only thing worth pursuing.
While some of her younger fans may be dismayed by the middle-aged ennui underlying these pages, older readers will be impressed by the way she has managed to genuinely advance on previous work – an achievement rare in literary fiction. In a world of fading wunderkinds, Scarlett Thomas is proving to be the real deal.
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