The Short Version: The Gardener Family has secrets. After the death of the eldest family member, some of those secrets begin to come to light – secrets of paternity, of love, of how the middle generation all died on a mysterious expedition, and of real world magic.
The Review: It is a goddamn shame that just as Scarlett Thomas delivers her best novel so far, one that highlights all of her eccentricities and skills in perfect measure, that American audiences are least-likely to find. James Cappio had much to say about this in his glowing review at The Millions in May 2016 (Laura Miller also talked about it in fall 2015 over at Slate) but it is worth being repeated even one more time: this is the best book so far by one of the English language’s most interesting and exciting writers, one who has even had a modicum of success… and it can’t find an audience, at least not an American one.
Thomas’s work so far has often been heady and surreal – PopCo, The End of Mr. Y, and Our Tragic Universe are novels as interested in their intellectual gameplay as they are in being novels. Honestly, this is likely true of her earlier two novels as well, Bright Young Things and Going Out, although those are a bit more traditionally novelistic (by comparison, at least). She is such a tremendous novelist precisely because she expects her readers to be intellectually engaged: you can’t sleepwalk through a Scarlett Thomas novel and while you could absolutely take it to the beach, you won’t get off your towel if you let one of these novels get its hooks into you. Even if you finish it feeling confounded and confused (even angry at it, as I’ve seen in some corners), it’s hard to not still be impressed by the mind at work behind the pen.
This particular novel also happens to live right in my wheelhouse: it’s a sprawling family novel with a bit of magic, complex characters and relationships, and an authorial voice that can be both daring and hilarious in the same breath. Thomas spins through her characters’ heads with the sort of narrative bravado that I can only equate to something like filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s whirling single-takes. She introduces magic into the novel as though it is utterly ordinary, just as notable (or not) as another character’s alcoholism or another’s proclivities. She sets a reader up to leave the novel wondering a) what just happened at the end, b) what just happened in the novel overall, and c) what exactly the point of it all was – but it’s not a critical wondering, more of a shocked and happily dazed wondering.
The Gardener family was struck by tragedy some decades ago, when the brilliant younger generation (the parents of those who are now the younger generation, who are also being quickly aged out of that window by their children) disappeared on a quest to find some mysterious seed pods that could, it’s said, reveal total enlightenment. The children, now grown, don’t believe so much in the magic of it all – and they’ve all grown up to have other things to worry about. But when their great aunt dies, leaving her New Age retreat, a previously unknown cottage on Jura, and several seed pods to those children, they start to consider what the truth of their parents’ demise might’ve been.
But this novel isn’t about that, it isn’t about the mystery. It is about Bryony’s alcoholism and her obesity. It is about Fleur trying to decide what the hell to do with her life. It is about Clematis realizing she’s unhappy in her marriage. These character go through utterly mundane things but in such a way that makes them all seem completely compelling (even though they are all, to a one, some measure of repugnant human beings) – and it is because Thomas infuses them with such vigor and intelligence that they might almost be real and she’s just followed them around, writing about their lives. Even the ‘mysteries’ that might be spoiled by, say, flipping to the back and spying the “revised” family tree aren’t actually novel-ending revelations: they’re brought to light throughout the novel and without much ceremony. Thomas is more interested in presenting a multifaceted representation of this family and those around them than she is stringing readers along from plot point to plot point.
And then, of course, there are strange moments. Like a page from the point of view of a robin or vividly-rendered drug trips. There’s an orchid that grows to show the face of a person who will ingest its seed pods and die. There is flying. There is a book that becomes whatever the reader needs it to be upon picking it up (and haven’t we all found a book or two like that in our time). Somehow all of these things sit together, perfectly; the surreality does not chafe against the reality but rather the two complement each other.
Rating: 6 out of 5. Echoes of Edward St. Aubyn mixed with Shirley Jackson – culminating in a modern-day Virginia Woolf. Her experimentations in form and content, her pursuit of narrative authenticity, her relentless desire to explore and imagine (without providing answers) make her one of the few unique authors working today; there’s nobody out there like Scarlett Thomas. This is her best novel yet, and it’s a damned shame that US audiences are, quite likely, missing it. It was one of my absolutely favorite reads of 2016 (coming in under the wire, I’m almost ashamed to say) and it’ll be my mission in 2017 to put Thomas into more readers’ hands.