Book Review: The Plankton Collector by Cath Barton

The Plankton Collector by Cath BartonThe Plankton Collector is told in the comforting voice of a storyteller, rather like a bed time story, and it is short enough to be read in one sitting. The plot is based around the struggles of one small family as they attempt to keep going in the face of intense grief. One by one, each family member is visited by a mysterious figure – the Plankton Collector. He does very little, and says very little, but gradually, over time, his visits begin to help, and their wounds begin to heal…  

“No-one knows his name, or rather they know him by different names, depending on when and where they meet him. All he asks is to be acknowledged and listened to but, like the plankton, he is a wanderer… and is never in one place for long. He passes unremarked in the crowd. He is the man at the next table in the café. The one drinking his morning coffee like any other…

He has been doing his work for many years unrecognised by most of us. He goes to those who are ready and willing to receive his help.”

Ten-year-old Mary sees him as Mr Smith, a friendly stranger who takes her on a trip to the seaside. The trip is both vivid and real, although there is also the distinct feeling that perhaps it was not so real after all. Her mother meets him as Stephen, a man stood near her son’s grave, who begins to help her vocalise her grief. Then the younger son (Bunny) sees him as the gardener, and he appears to their father as a friend from long ago.

These visits are both real and imagined, surreal and yet comforting. The Plankton Collector does very little, and yet he seems to have the knack for helping each family member to see the world around them a little differently, to put things into perspective, to remember things they had tried to forget, and to face the future together.

Reading through the blurb, or even my own description of the plot, it sounds almost ridiculous, but this is an accomplished narrative which balances perfectly on the edge of reality, revealing just how flawed and lonely human beings can become. The Plankton Collector shows us how the simplest of reminders, the slightest of memories or the most ordinary of conversations can bring people together, creating hope from despair.

The story is told in such a delightful and matter-of-fact way, that it sounds just like a fairy tale for modern times. And its moral is one of hope.

The Plankton Collector by Cath Barton is published by New Welsh Rarebyte, an imprint of the New Welsh Review. It is the winning novella of the New Welsh Writing Awards 2017, and will be published on 26th September 2018.

Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

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