Book Review: The Overstory by Richard Powers

Book: The Overstory by Richard PowersThe Overstory is an epic tale which moves at an incredible pace, following the stories of disparate people, and trees, over several decades. I was uncertain, to begin with, what to make of the present tense omniscient narrator style, but soon became swept along, mesmerised by the way in which the lives of people and trees are intertwined:   

“Adam looks and sees just this: a tree he has walked past three times a week for seven years. It’s the lone species of the only genus in the sole family in the single order of the solitary class remaining in a now-abandoned division that once covered the earth – a living fossil three hundred million years old that disappeared from the continent back in the Neogene and has returned to scratch out a living in the shadow, salt and fumes of Lower Manhattan. A tree older than conifers, with swimming sperm and cones that can put out a trillion more grains of pollen a year…”

The novel begins with ‘the roots’ – as eight individual stories are told, setting the scene for what comes next. We hear of a young man who inherits a single chestnut tree, and a promise to capture its growth on camera, once a month, for the rest of time, a teenager whose life is irrevocably altered the day he falls out of an oak tree, and a student who comes back from the brink of death transformed, able to communicate with ethereal beings of air and light. We watch as three young girls grow up beneath a Mulberry Tree, sharing an ancestry they will never fully understand, while one young boy becomes fascinated by the behaviour of ants. We meet Douglas, who spends his years veering from one task to the next, until he discovers his mission: to plant as many trees as he can, and a young couple very much in love, yet entirely ignorant of the plant life that surrounds them.

The ‘trunk’ comes next, as several of these characters find their lives connecting up, drawn towards the plight of America’s last ancient forest, determined to do whatever they can to protect it. Two of them end up living in the canopy itself for weeks on end, learning a whole new way of existing, while others are drawn into a surreal world of protest and arrest, connected only by their shared obsession. It culminates in a bond that none of them could have predicted, daring to fight back against the authorities with everything they have.

Then we see ‘the crown’, as they each disperse in different directions and attempt to continue with their own lives. But everything is irrevocably linked, in more ways than they can guess – the plot bristles with tension right up to the final page, as ‘the seeds’ are sown for what follows.

The Overstory will certainly make you step outside and look up at the slow-moving world of green above your head, to appreciate the strange otherworldly existence of trees in a new way, and to question your own assumptions. The story is relentless, ever expanding, branching out and up. It appears to continue on, even after the final pages.

Buy The Overstory by Richard Powers

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