Review: Seed by Caryl Lewis
After decades of producing some of the best Welsh language fiction such as the peerless Martha, Jac a Sianco Caryl Lewis has now started to produce her first works in English and if Seed is anything to go by it’s the beginning of a whole new blossoming.
It is utterly delightful and then some, a book to delight children but also to release the inner child in all of us.
Ostensibly it’s the story of Marty, who lives in a house so crammed with junk that he and his magpie of mother are under threat of eviction and an account of Marty’s new friendship with Gracie, a deaf dancer blessed with raw if uncultivated talent.
But it’s also a story which very much revolves around Marty’s grandfather who is a great creation, a larger-than-life, Trilby-wearing dreamer who has a rare and communicable zest for life. He also has the seed of an idea, along with an actual seed, not that he’s willing to divulge what sort of seed it is precisely.
As the novel chugs merrily along, we find out that Grandad wants to grow not just an outsize vegetable but one big enough to convert into a sailing vessel and then travel in it all the way to Paris. Yes, that big.
As all your pumpkin growers out there well know, this is no small undertaking for an old man but, luckily, he has a secret recipe which he cooks up in a barrel, adding piles of stinging nettles, a yellow liquid that bears more than a passing resemblance to wee and blackened banana skins.
To help him in this task he has the tea stirrer 300, an invention of his own devising which helps turn the concoction as it boils. His neighbours on the allotment also help feed the growing plant in their own ways – Sadiq lends his water butt to expedite the watering, John Trinidad sprinkles a mysterious powder onto the pumpkin’s roots while the lady from allotment seven takes a very literary approach, reading poems to it from the likes of Maya Angelou and Benjamin Zephaniah while Colin the Milkman diligently gathers bird poo and scatters it around. But despite their communal efforts the pumpkin stubbornly stays the same size.
But then, one night Marty shares his dreams with the squash and it triggers an undeniable growth spurt and soon other dreamers help make the pumpkin swell, at a rate which is, in Grandad’s own words ‘going to be spectacularous.’
The old man borrows a stethoscope from the poetry-loving woman on Plot 7 and soon he is listening to the pumpkin, not that it has a heartbeat but as Grandad says, he can ‘hear the juices and the waters flowing in it.’
Soon the vegetable has grown to be big enough to attract visitors, including a newspaper reporter from the local Gazette and it is time to start planning in earnest for the amazing trip to France.
Meanwhile Gracie has decided to audition for dance school even though she has had no formal tuition whatsoever. But when she spins and twirls on the beach it is a simply transformative experience:
“Marty watched her, the beach and time and the world disappearing. There seemed to be nothing but the brushstrokes of her arms finding colours in the air around here and the rhythms of her feet. Marty and Grandad were transfixed as she made lines and shapes and then, when she eventually resurfaced back into their world, she stopped, her hands still above her head, and looked up at them as if she was seeing them for the first time.”
There are a good few other transformations in store.
Marty’s mother learns to look after herself and what seems like a cruel world turns out to be pretty wonderful, not least when Grandad cuts into the pumpkin, first with a Japanese ceremonial sword he’s borrowed from the pub for the occasion and then with a chainsaw, revealing giant seeds ‘the size of mangoes, stringy membranes and bright orange flesh’ that together cast a golden glow onto Marty and his grandfather’s faces.
Marvellous and uplifting
Soon there is only the small matter of crossing the English Channel in a scooped-out pumpkin powered by an outboard motor, and a scenic journey up the River Seine and then all the sight of the City of Lights to take in.
These all turn out to be just as marvellous and uplifting as Marty could wish them to be, a set of experiences crowned by climbing the Eiffel Tower at night to see the city arrayed below.
There are other adventures to follow, not least a lurching wave-chopped return sea crossing but even drenching spray does nothing to dampen Grandad’s exuberant spirits.
For as he says, ‘This adventure is for all of us! Us dreamers! Us people they say are mad and bonkers! This is our way of saying “We matter too.” This is our way of saying, “Don’t ever let go of your dreams.”’
It’s a hopeful mantra that acts as an undertow beneath this fine, cheerily entrancing book, with its lovely illustrations by George Ermos and captivating, life-affirming storytelling by Lewis, who, by this evidence has herself transformed into a children’s author of both warmth and real, demonstrable skill.
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