Cath Barton: The Plankton Collector
New Welsh Rarebyte 2018
Winner of a New Welsh Writing Award for 2017 in the novella category, The Plankton Collector is one of those dreamlike pieces that at odd moments rises unbidden to the surface of this reader’s thoughts like a bubble from unknown depths. To describe it as magic realism is not the whole story, yet the narrative does in fact drift like a leaf on a pond from one magical moment to another before catching on the rocks of reality, the reality of authentic lives lived with pain and sorrow and maybe, ultimately, hope.
We begin at the seaside with a beautiful piece of nature writing, as lyrical, say, as anything Charles Kingsley wrote in Glaucus, or the Wonders of the Shore. Here we meet the Plankton Collector himself, a shapeshifter who sifts sand and shells for living creatures, ultimately to show them how they might fit into the mysterious patterns of existence.
Lest the prologue, all told in the historic present, should appear too airy-fairy we may note that it is titled ‘In the Beginning’—as with Genesis we shall find that all is not perfect in the garden, that there’s a worm in the bud which will upset a family’s idyll for some time to come. The novella gropes towards a resolution that at times seems just out of our grasp.
We meet the family—David, Rose and their three children, Edgar, Bunny and Mary. We see from separate points of view how a death affects each surviving family member in turn, causing the Plankton Collector to appear in succession in different guises—as gardener, as uncle, as lover, as kindly Mr Smith. Who is he?
This man is a little like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, or Svengali, or Dr Who, and yet he is none of these. He sings, but he does not hypnotise, neither does he offer time travel, at least not to other galaxies. Inside our own world he is certainly a traveller. Think of this: when you last walked through the centre of your town, you might well have passed him…
What he does is offer balm for the spirits of those he sees suffering from life’s hard knocks. He does it quietly, with compassion, and so subtly that no-one doubts him—and even though they may be initially puzzled over his appearance into their lives, acquaintance soon shades into acceptance. As each individual’s hurts and anxieties are laid bare George, or Mr Smith, or Colin is there to soothe and ease them away.
He’s not all-powerful, the Plankton Collector, but he is indubitably a magician. His modus operandi includes visits to the seaside, the collecting of shells, the making of shell pictures. The liminal aspects of sea meeting shore and sky, and the sea creatures that have a function after death, together provide therapy and initiate a healing process.
While the writing becomes a little more prosaic (and marginally pedestrian) towards the end of the novella, its underlying lyricism and deep sympathy for the fragile members of this family—parents and children alike—are the qualities that linger in the mind. In all this The Plankton Collector combines powerfully the lightness of illusion with a tangible realism that we recognise (and may even have ourselves experienced). A powerful debut work.
I should add that Cath Barton is an acquaintance but that I’ve tried to give an honest review of this work. In preparation for March’s Wales Readathon aka Dewithon19 (hosted by Paula at Book Jotter) I hope to be reading a couple more writings connected with Wales, of which this is the first for this year.