One of those novels with a large, confusing cast of people who are all related, but in complex ways. Even the Family Tree before the prologue, and the amended Family Tree after the Epilogue, didn’t help much. I’m not sure I ever really grasped who’s who at this zoo – or maybe I should say greenhouse.
To describe the novel as a Family Saga is true, I suppose, but it is by no means your run-of-the-mill FamSaga. Because much of the narrative is chopped into small, and sometimes even tiny, sections, the story skips merrily to and fro, thus adding to the dense thicket of the plot. Using a plant simile is entirely in keeping with the novel; the family surname is Gardener and there is a Family Tradition of naming progeny with whimsical botanical names like Quince, or Oleander, or Holly – you get the idea.
Most of the men are either deeply unpleasant or tiresomely ineffectual. We are party to their graphic sexual fantasies. Yuck. Some of the women are just plain awful: anorexic pre-teen tennis fiend, Holly and her drunken shopaholic Mum, Bryony, for example. My favourite female character was 75 year old Granny Beatrix, who has discovered the thrill of the Internet Stock Exchange Trading and on-line porn.
So: there’s a rich compost of participants mixed into a seething brew of botany, incest (between consenting adults, let me hasten to add),transcendentalism, New Age Celeb hideout, psychotropics, deadly poisonous seeds, Lost Islands, the Outer Hebrides which are not THE Lost Islands, but have a connection. You’ll have to read the book to find out.
An outstanding feature of the novel are the 3 or 4 pages of superb writing, where Scarlett Thomas takes us into the consciousness of a stoned Robin Redbreast, inventing a brilliant bird style vocabulary to convey the bird’s feelings and experiences. And it does not result in a series of disconnected, hectic tweets. For me, these pages justified reading the book.
Altogether one of the most unusual novels I’ve read in a while. Recommended.