Monday, February 4, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Overstory by Richard Powers

A friend lent me The Overstory by Richard Powers. It’s a remarkable book, but since it left me feeling depressed, angry, guilty, and hopeless, I hesitate to recommend it. Reading it on the heels of The Financier by Theodore Dreiser was doubly painful. Yet the book is powerful and I’m grateful my friend brought it to my attention.

The author is undeniably talented. The writing is evocative and the structure brilliant. I’m impressed by the breadth and depth of his knowledge of trees and of human experience. The amount of research that had to have gone into this is daunting to imagine. It’s a book with a strong message presented in such a poetic way it doesn’t come across as preachy. But that message is damning. If there is a hint of redemption for mankind in the end, I think I missed it.

The book begins with a section titled "Roots." Powers introduces the reader to several main characters, sometimes beginning with their ancestors so we truly get to know how they were formed into what they are. Some are individuals and others we meet as part of a couple. As I waded through the first part of the book, I got a bit exasperated because even beautiful writing plods when it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Where was the plot?

The plot shows up in the second part, titled "Trunk." Incredibly, the varied people come together and forge a purpose. (And the book grows into a novel instead of what seemed to be a collection of unrelated short stories.)

Trees are being destroyed. Old growth forests are being mowed down at a shocking speed. These trees are irreplaceable. By now, we have been immersed enough in each character to understand how different trees have played a formative role in each of their lives. Maybe we’ve even paused to remember significant trees in our own lives. The fact that trees communicate, that trees have agency, is acceptable fact and not fantasy. We pull for the trees as hard as the newly-minted radical tree-huggers do. We feel the urgency of the plotline. Saving the trees is essential to saving us all.

The novel is not as simplistic as that. It has too many layers to try presenting them all. I won’t go into spoilers, except to say there is a painful inevitability to the story’s progression, through sections titled "Crown" and "Seeds."

At roughly 500 pages, the novel is long but not frighteningly so. Yet it is so dense with meaning that it reads as a much longer book. Nevertheless, it was worth the time invested. It’ll stick with me a long while.

No comments:

Post a Comment