Book Title: The Seed Thief
Author: Jacqui L’Ange
Reviewer: Kufre Usanga
As a bibliophile faced with the herculean task of choosing which one book to buy out of the nine Long listed books for the Etisalat prize at the 2016 Ake Festival, I was halted by the title of this novel and its leaf green cover with a dangling plant and its seed. I decided to venture further by opening the Prologue. The first sentence of the prologue – ‘A girl on a boat on a river’ (7) – intrigued and excited the eco-activist in me. The one thing better than a journey motif novel is a green novel that exploits the journey motif. These few pointers concretised my decision and I succumbed.
This is how I will describe reading The Seed Thief: it is reminiscent of going into a restaurant as a first timer, ordering the Tuesday special and getting pleasantly surprised by a sweet aroma commingled with orgasm-inducing, taste bud-exploding scrumptiousness – the sort of layered deliciousness that excites in different doses. Truth be told, I would have been nonplussed if it did not make the Etisalat Prize Short List of three mainly due to its superb narrative technique and uniqueness of themes.
Told in the first person, the narrative in The Seed Thief swerves through time and defies linear progression. The flashbacks give a backdrop to the protagonist, Maddy, and propel the plot. Divided into two parts; Part 1 – Outgoing, takes the reader through Maddy’s chaotic and crisis-filled teenage years to adulthood where we meet her in an airport, journeying to Salvador to procure by all means necessary a rare seed for the Seed Bank she works for. Part 2 – Incoming reveals Salvador in its ritualistic splendour with the different terrerios, the orixas, candombles, colours and the protagonist’s affiliations and growth. Do not let the title mislead you; the Seed Thief is not only concerned with a seed. Its potpourri of sub themes include the quest for self discovery, family relationship, loyalty, betrayal and mythology – which are adeptly interwoven to serve as the bedrock upon which the author’s primary concern of environmentalism blossoms.
Tasked by her superior at work with the search and retrieval of the rare and extinct in the wild seed of Newbouldia Mundii in Brazil, Maddy reluctantly welcomes this venture as an avenue for resuscitation after a cold, strenuous, infidelity-laden eight year romance which ‘began in the mountains’ and ‘climaxed in the mountains,’ (Pg 44) although it also threatens to move her closer to her father’s abode. Their father-daughter relationship is a troubled one, and she handles it with silent treatment and anger. True to its nature, Brazil captivates the protagonist, body, heart and soul, and Miss L’Ange’s keen eyes for details captures this effectively.
The author evokes a powerful imagery of Brazil with her mesmeric prose and narrative technique. The reader is transposed and enchanted by the sounds, descriptions and diversity. As is the norm with the first person narrator, the reader is susceptible to concur with her sentiments and views about other characters, culture, tradition and the environment encountered. Together, we are thrust into the dense Candombles and terrerios with their diverse colours, arts, beautiful rituals, customs and laws. But in all, it is when writing ‘Green’ that her style reaches its zenith. Hear her:
I passed white jacarandas and trees heavy with cacao fruits. Mangos
and avocados mingled with Atlantic rainforest trees I didn’t recognize.
Bahia’s rainforest are floristically unique and spectacularly diverse. I
tilted my head back and looked up into the canopy. Breathing in the ozone,
I let myself get dizzy with green. (126-127)
Oh so beautiful!!! And green is on almost every page.
The trans-culturalism of the Yoruba pantheon from West Africa to Brazil due to slave trade and other importations of that era are foregrounded through the richness of African culture and tradition in the candombles and in the Orixas (gods) albeit with their names and attributes slightly altered- as they are spelt in Portuguese. Exu, (Esu in Yoruba) remains a trickster.
Exu was the one to watch out for. But everyone respected the devilish trickster Exu. You would be crazy not to. (115)
The river goddess Oxum had a small, flat horned deer. A meek little turtle accompanied thunder god Xango, whose swinging loincloth was carved with axes, cogs and triangle. Iron man Ogun had his fox, the rainbow weaver Oxumare, an ox. Yemanja was the mother of them all the goddess surfed the waves on a fish, listening to the secrets of the sea in a shell pressed to her ear. (117)
Some of the narrator’s experiences in the terreiros are not necessarily questions of cultural appropriation or trans-culturalism but they reveal her yearning to belong, and to find home. As she journeys, Maddy becomes a believer, confronts betrayal, renegotiates her stance with her father, falls in love and finds the courage to do that which is right to preserve the precious seed. Although sexual activity can be found in The Seed Thief, Miss L’ange suggests copulation, only through smells and sounds, suffice to say, a few details would have whetted my appetite.
Miss L’Ange objurgates fanatical pharmaceutical corporations as well as deforestation and mining as causes of plant extinction/endangerment – as is to be expected from an eco-conscious writer. In the rare instance that you are not excited about Yoruba gods, rituals and green writing, this temporary bore will ultimately be salvaged by the intriguing narrative in The Seed Thief, and the wealth of knowledge therein.