The Overstory - Richard Powers

Review :

Further Update. I can't help it: Powers' writing does something to me. I've now finished a re-read of this book and I am going back to 5 stars. It's a book that really rewards a second reading. It is much darker than I remember from first read (suicide, disillusionment, betrayal on top of the destruction of the natural world) and also much more emotional. The latter of those two surprised me because I thought that knowing the story would reduce the emotional impact, but the reverse happened.

I loved all the comparisons of speed (humans, the natural world, computers) and I got a lot more out of Neelay's story this time through.

So, whilst I can understand the criticisms some have made, I'm choosing to ignore those bits and take the novel as a whole which is, I think, required reading.

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Update: on reflection, I got a bit excited about having a new Richard Powers book to read and I have definitely, despite what I say below, read better books this year. Consequently, my rating has dropped to 4 stars. There is also the fact that Powers himself has written several books better than this one.

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Two quotes from different parts of this book:

"The best arguments in the world won't change a person's mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story."

And

"Yes! And what do all good stories do" There are no takers. Neelay holds up his arms and extends his palms in the oddest gesture. In another moment, leaves will grow from his fingers. Birds will come and nest in them. "They kill you a little. They turn you into something you weren't."

I should come clean at the start of this review. Richard Powers is my favourite author. I have read all his previous novels and have been desperate to read this one ever since I first heard about it a few months ago. I am grateful to the publisher, via NetGalley, for the opportunity to read an ARC a couple of months prior to publication date.

The overstory is the name given to the part of a forest that protrudes above the canopy. When you look at a rainforest, for example, what you see from above is the canopy with trees standing out above it. What you don't see unless you get into the rainforest is the understory that sits below the canopy but above the ground, then the shrub layer below that and, finally, the forest floor.

It is clear from page 1 of this book that the trees will be the stars of the show. Repeatedly, they are referred to as "the most wondrous products of four billion years of creation" and the book is shot through with the most astonishing and mind-blowing information about trees. In particular, the book tells us a lot about how and what trees communicate with each other. For example, when a tree comes under threat from an insect of some kind, it tells its neighbours who respond by releasing insecticide to protect themselves. In a large forest, many trees whose roots meet actually meld their root systems together making the whole forest an interconnected network where the trees nurture their young and heal their wounded. Not so long ago, all this was the stuff of ridicule, but today a lot of it has been demonstrated and more is being discovered all the time.

What Richard Powers wants his readers to realise is what this means for humanity. He wants us to realise how important trees are for the world. And he chooses to do this not with a text book but with a story.

His story is structured like a tree. The first 150 pages consist of the "Roots". These are 8 apparently independent short stories giving us the back story for 9 different people. One, for example, tells us the family history of a some immigrants into America (mid-1800s) ending with an artist in recent times who inherits the family collection of photographs all of the same chestnut tree taking at monthly intervals over generations. In another, a hearing and speech impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with each other. The unifying theme across all the stories is the presence of trees. And it is worth noting those trees because, as many people know, trees have huge mythical and symbolic meanings and the trees Powers chooses for each of his characters are not random selections.

The next 200 pages are "Trunk". Here the stories of the individuals that we now know quite well start to merge and connect. Some merge completely, others connect tangentially. This passage is overtly political. Don't expect an unbiased overview: this is an impassioned plea for the protection of trees set in the form of a story. It is an attempt to make readers realise how temporary humans are in the grand scheme of things

"But people have no idea what time is. They think it's a line, spinning out from three seconds behind them, then vanishing just as fast into the three seconds of fog just ahead. They can't see that time is one spreading ring wrapped around another, outward and outward until the thinnest skin of Now depends for its being on the enormous mass of everything that has already died."

and how much more permanent trees are

"Out in the yard, all around the house, the things they've planted in years gone by are making significance, making meaning, as easily as they make sugar and wood from nothing, from air, and sun, and rain. But the humans hear nothing."

Then we have 120 pages called "Crown" where the stories separate after a dramatic climax to Trunk, but remain connected, branching out in different directions.

Then, finally, "Seeds" tells us some of the outcomes of the stories and leaves us poised for the next steps in others. It includes a plea for us to look at things differently.

"The planet's lungs will be ripped out. And the law will let this happen, because harm was never imminent enough. Imminent, at the speed of people, is too late. The law must judge imminent at the speed of trees."

I think this is perhaps one of Powers' most accessible novels. It feels to me, fresh from finishing it, like his most passionate one. Yes, there is some science, but a lot of it is explained carefully. This novel does not require the scientific background that some of Powers' novels have asked the reader for. And there is no music in this book, which is the other thing that Powers often includes in his novels and often does so in a fairly technical way. This one is, by contrast, far more emotional: it feels like a book Powers has written because he wants, as the quote at the start of this review says, to change people's minds. In my case, he is perhaps preaching to the converted because I am already a believer in conservation and already convinced of the importance of trees. Even so, this book taught me many things and fired up a stronger passion in me for the natural world. I have to hope that others will read it and become equally convinced of the need for intelligent conservation work.

I know I am biased because of my love for all of Powers' novels, but I think it is possible I have now, even only in January, read my favourite book of 2018.


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