The Overstory

I learnt of Richard Powers’ latest work in an anecdote by a Reading’s bookseller: over dinner with Tim Winton, Tim reached into his bag and pulled out The Overstory, saying “Man, you’ve got to read this! It’s a novel about trees.”  Plus on the front is an endorsement from Margaret Atwood: “It’s not possible for Powers to write an uninteresting book.”.  And considering how much Powers’ last work, Orfeo, knocked me down and swept me up and broke my heart, I knew I had to have this in my hands.  I was already sold.

And so with high excitement and expectations, I threw myself into The Overstory.  It is a monumental novel which completely reimagines our place in this living world.  An environmental epic, told by a Greek chorus.  It opens unfolding in concentric rings of interlocking fable: this is its roots.  It reads like a collection of short stories: from antebellum New York, to an Air Force loadmaster being shot out of the sky in Vietnam, to a daughter of a Chinese immigrant who inherits her father’s priceless ancient scroll as well has his work ethic, to a hard-partying undergrad in the 1980s who dies and comes back to life.

But what these, and the other stories, have in common is trees: each are summoned in different ways by trees and are brought together in the next part of the book, the trunk, in a last stand to save America’s only remaining virgin forest.  These world’s coalesce in this incredibly complex story which reflects the very world that Powers is showing us: the vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, inventive, almost invisible world of trees.  The world alongside ours; older, more important, and on the brink of absolute catastrophe.

At times, I found this book near-exaultant: these characters are so diverse, so well drawn, so fascinating; the world is one that I celebrate in, that I respect, that I want to know more of.  But through the trunk to the branches, an absolute abiding sadness hit me.  Because it is all very well to acknowledge and love the immediate world of trees around you but step back, as Powers has done and as his characters were driven to do, and it is impossible not to be struck completely dumb but the sheer horror and irreversible destruction humanity is causing upon this world.

This book does not preach, nor does it set out to shock but by god man’s sheer inhumanity just hit me like a blow to the head while reading this book.  It is beautiful, and respectful, and it is astonishing how Powers’ writing can take in a whole sweep of the world reflected in some small way, but some of what he sees here is just so unfathomably terrible.  In that everyday way, which makes it even worse.  I found myself gripping onto the book itself as if somehow it would save me, let me go back from this understanding.

This is an incredibly beautiful and interesting book.  Powers is a fantastic writer somehow able to weave poetry and plot into one moment that is a pleasure to read.  The interweaving of times, characters, and place to tell the story of how these people came to see this world of trees is stunning.  I was compelled along.  The Overstory utterly redefines consciousness and life, challenges our spectrum of morality, digs into what is human, but more importantly shows us that the earth is alive in a way much bigger than us.  I loved it.

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