When Cape Town-based botanist, Magdalene “Maddy” Bellani, is asked by her boss at Kirstenbosch’s Botanical Institute to travel to her birthland, Brazil, she’s reluctant. She hasn’t been back to the country of her estranged father in decades, and the long trip means she’ll miss the prime flowering season of the Cape’s fynbos. But, the thought of finding the seeds of the rare Newbouldia mundii, is exciting. The tree has gone extinct in its native West Africa, but is possibly growing in a remote part of Brazil after arriving there via the slave trade hundreds of years ago. And, with Maddy’s long-term relationship on the rocks, the trip presents a chance for escape. At least, that’s what she believes.
Once in Salvador, Maddy is overwhelmed by the colours, smells, tastes, and sounds of the locals and their “living, breathing, dancing” Afro-Brazilian religious practice, Candomblé. It is one of the sects within this religion that is rumoured to be guarding the Newbouldia mundii. With the help of the entrancing local garden keeper, Zé, Maddy slowly tries to gain the trust of those who have watched over rare species for hundreds of years, even as her own trust in the motives of those who sent her on the mission is slowly eroded. As her questions about her expedition deepen, Maddy begins to find answers about love, life, and herself, in a place she least expected.
Like the drumbeats of Candomblé, L’Ange builds the characters and tension in the plot in layers, with ebb and flow. Her descriptions of Salvadoran culture and history is filled with the sweat, energy, and pulsating rhythms, with the prose often having a dreamlike, hypnotic quality, offset by Maddy’s quotations from the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Botanical descriptions have never been this richly imagined.
“There is a sublime subtlety to fynbos. You can look at it from afar, and see nothing but featureless scrub; get in close and the tiny details are astounding. That day, masses of tiny pink erica balls hazed the grey-green brush. In the lab, I love to lift the erica’s tiny seed case with tweezers, and put it under the microscope. The seed is a speck to the naked eye; amplified it fluffs up, perfectly round and covered in luxuriant, shockingly pink fur. Such a lascivious little seed! On screen it would be played by a bombshell wearing a fluffy boa and feathered mules; the Marilyn Monroe of seeds, as drawn by Dr Seuss.”
As Maddy inches closer to finding her seed, the reader is drawn further into a world of dreamlike beauty. Maddy discovers that like most people her journey is really the one to find a sense of belonging, even if on a different continent, in a culture steeped in mystery and viewed with awe, fear, and superstition.
As someone for whom plants are pretty to look at, but otherwise decidedly boring, I lost myself in a story that is lovingly crafted with words that capture the minutiae of the tiniest elements of biology and the larger-than-life culture of South America’s biggest nation. The Seed Thief is a story of worlds beneath worlds within worlds, of surrendering to the splendour of chaos and the beauty of the mysterious.
“I’m in the forest. Someone is after me, and I need to hide. I climb into the lap of a sturdy, spreading tree, with small leaves and buttresses like thick thighs flanged into the earth. Its roots cling to the soil like prehensile toes – I know this because when I climb into the tree, I become the tree. The roots are my toes, the branches my arms, the buttresses my hips and thighs. My head is crowned with leaves, and I feel the power of the sap running through me. Heartwood and sapwood.
And it is nothing at all, it is simplicity itself, to unclench my root toes, pull them from the forest loam, flex my cambium like a supple skin, heave my trunk and swing into a stride, heavy but graceful on thick root legs.
I gain momentum, feel a surge of pure energy. I am a jungle of vascular bundles. My sap pumps through xylem and phloem, my corpuscles are powered by chlorophyll.
Slipping though the other stationery tress, I have the grace of a dancer. I’m a sylph, disturbing nothing, leaving no trace of my passage on the forest floor.”
Rating: 4½ out of 5
The Seef Thief is published by Umuzi.