Book review – The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Overstory by Richard Powers

“An extraordinary novel … It’s an astonishing performance …He’s incredibly good at describing trees, at turning the science into poetry …The book is full of ideas … Like Moby-Dick, The Overstory leaves you with a slightly adjusted frame of reference … Some of what was happening to his characters passed into my conscience, like alcohol into the bloodstream, and left a feeling behind of grief or guilt, even after I put it down. Which is one test of the quality of a novel.” (Ben Markovits, Guardian).

“Monumental…The Overstory accomplishes what few living writers from either camp, art or science, could attempt. Using the tools of the story, he pulls readers heart-first into a perspective so much longer-lived and more subtly developed than the human purview that we gain glimpses of a vast, primordial sensibility, while watching our own kind get whittled down to size…A gigantic fable of genuine truths.” (Barbara Kingsolver, New York Times)

Having read glowing reviews like those above, Sue and I bought The Overstory and then booked to go to a talk by Richard Powers at the Edinburgh Book Festival last week. We were not disappointed by either the book or the author. The Overstory is a gripping novel with a full cast of well-developed human characters but there is no doubt that the most important characters in the book are trees. All manner of trees, small, large, and giant; young, old, and ancient; European, Asian, African, and (mainly) American. The life stories of the human characters revolve around these trees, and the book includes the most up-to-date scientific findings about how trees communicate. It also pulls no punches in describing the carnage we humans have wrought in the great forests of the world in our insatiable demands for more and more material goods, and the inevitable diminishment of our own lives as a result. I for one will never experience walking in a wood in the same way again.

After listening to the author speak at the Festival we were fortunate enough to be able to chat with him later. Richard Powers is a modest, deeply thoughtful man who described to us how the process of researching the background for this book has profoundly affected him, so much so that he has now moved to live in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, where there is one of the most extensive old growth forests still left standing in America. Of course the Trump administration is busy removing the last protections these forests have in law, and the future of the forests again looks bleak. But for now they could not have a better or more eloquent champion than Richard Powers and his book. It has been long-listed for this year’s Booker; it will be interesting to see what the judges make of it.

Alan Bellamy