Book review: The Overstory by Richard Powers

“This is not our world with trees in it.
It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.”

With the devastating fires ripping through the Amazon, this book couldn’t feel any more timely.

I’ll admit, it did take me a while to get through all 625 pages of The Overstory. But you absolutely cannot, and should not skim this book.

Written by Richard Powers, The Overstory was shortlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2019. Having read it, I can see why.

The book is split into four sections – Roots, Trunk, Crown and Seeds.

In Roots, the reader is introduced one-by-one to nine different characters through eight separate narratives; Olivia Vandergriff (who later becomes Maidenhair), Nick Hoel (who later becomes Watchman), Mimi Ma, Adam Appich, Douglas Pavlicek, Patricia Westerford, Neelay Mehta, Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly.

Each character initially seems pretty different – from a wandering orphan, to a programming genius, to a dendrologist with a hearing disability. But the more you read, the more you realise that there is one thing connecting them.

I’ll admit, it took me a little bit of time to get through this section but I think that’s because I found some of the characters a lot more interesting than others, which is perhaps to be expected with so many individual backstories to read.

In the next two sections, Trunk and Crown, the characters start to develop and many are tested by fundamental changes in their lives. The stories also start to cross over and characters start to bond, in one way or another, through their individual connection totrees.

One by one, the characters start to awaken to the importance of the world around them, realising just how vital trees are to everyday life. From the provision of shade, warmth and oxygen, to the home they offer to thousands of different species, the importance of trees becomes clear.

It also becomes clear just how much damage man is wreaking on the natural world.

As the book progresses, there are multiple protests and quite a lot of violence. There are hippy sleep-outs in the tree-tops. There are academic arguments about the intelligence of trees and the logic of protesters. There are love stories too – both new and revived romances. There’s also death (be prepared for a few tears).

Finally, in ‘Seeds’, it’s almost the stage where the characters start looking back at what they did, or tried to do, and where others begin looking forward at what more needs to be done. We’re also introduced to the ‘learners’ – which felt a bit mysterious to me, but seemed to be a way to show what future generations need to understand and realise in order to live sustainably and to protect the ancient woodlands, forests and jungles that act as lungs to our planet.

It’s not often that a book can get into your head, or make you sit up and notice that which you may have taken for granted before.

But The Overstory does just that.

Perhaps timing is everything. With so much focus on climate change and pollution, and with the Amazon rainforest suffering from horrific fires, perhaps that’s why I felt the message of this book so strongly.

Yet it feels like more than that. In just over 600 pages, Richard Powers makes you really see trees.

We might not all want to camp out in the canopies like the characters of Maidenhair and Watchman but there are things we can still do to protect ancient woodlands and rainforests from mass deforestation. Deforestation which is happening at an alarming rate, and far too quickly for woodlands to recover from. Deforestation which is also only happening because of our overly high consumption.

I work in a place where trees are visible from every window. I live on a road with trees lining each side, and roots breaking through the pavements which try to lock them down.

I’m surrounded by trees every day and yet how much have I really thought about them, or noticed them in the last year?

After reading this book, I realise not enough.

The Overstory is an incredibly powerful and hugely important book.

One review by The Guardian, suggested that it could leave a reader with ‘a slightly adjusted frame of reference’ – and I wholeheartedly agree.

Even as someone who cares about the natural world, and considers herself an environmentalist, The Overstory can alter the way you look at your surroundings.

It also raises several questions like, how much impact are we really having on the world around us?

Or, why are those who protect the natural world (a world that was here long before we were) often mocked and ridiculed?

Why don’t we value nature as much as we value money?

It was revealing to me that in the last part of the book, Powers describes the evolution of our planet as if it happened in 24 hours. Humans didn’t appear until late afternoon/early evening, and yet within a tiny space of time, we had risen to become the apex predator and also completely changed the visual appearance of the planet. It definitely makes you reflect.

If you get a chance to read this book, take it. Take it, read it, and then step outside and open your eyes.

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