Recently I worked my way through Richard Powers latest novel The Overstory. This is one of the most profoundly significant books I have ever read.
In 2018 it was short listed for the Man Booker Prize and then last year in 2019 the book won the Pulitzer prize. Now, if books that win such prizes scare you away – I know from experience I have found some of the past winners to be dense and impenetrable and for me, downright boring and tedious – then I am delighted to say that none of these characteristics are to be found in The Overstory.
The book has been described as follows:
“A wondrous, exhilarating novel about nine strangers brought together by an unfolding natural catastrophe. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. An Air Force crew member in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. This is the story of these and five other strangers, each summoned in different ways by the natural world, who are brought together in a last stand to save it from catastrophe.
‘Breathtaking’ – Barbara Kingsolver, New York Times
‘It’s a masterpiece’ – Tim Winton
‘It’s not possible for Powers to write an uninteresting book’ – Margaret Atwood
‘An astonishing performance’ – Benjamin Markovits, Guardian
Autumn makes me think of leaves, which makes me think of trees, which makes me think of The Overstory, the best novel ever written about trees, and really, just one of the best novels, period. – Ann Patchett
[The Overstory is] the best book I’ve read in ten years. It’s a remarkable piece of literature, and the moment it speaks to is climate change. So, for me, it’s a lodestone. It’s a mind-opening fiction, and it connects us all in a very positive way to the things that we have to do if we want to regain our planet. We’ve got lots and lots of trees where we live in Scotland. If I’m feeling unwell or unsettled in any way, I always go and sit with a tree or walk through the trees, and that’s incredibly healing and helpful – Emma Thompson * New York Times *
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. * Guardian *
The time is ripe for a big novel that tells us as much about trees as Moby-Dick does about whales … The Overstory is that novel and it is very nearly a masterpiece … The encyclopaedic powers of Powers extend from the sciences to the literary classics. On almost every page of The Overstory you will find sentences that combine precision and vision. You will learn new facts about trees … [An] exhilarating read. * The Times *
[The Overstory] whirls together so many characters, so much research and such a jostle of intersecting ideas that, at times, it feels like a land-bound companion to Moby-Dick’s digressional and obsessive whale tale … One of the most thoughtful and involving novels I’ve read for years … This long book is astonishingly light on its feet, and its borrowings from real research are conducted with verve … The propulsive style and the enthusiastic reverence of Powers’s writing about nature keep it whizzing through any amount of linked observations on literary criticism, political science and statistical analysis. It’s an extraordinary novel, alert to the large ideas and humanely generous to the small ones; in an age of cramped auto fictions and self-scrutinising miniatures, it blossoms. * Daily Telegraph *”
The Overstory is a great read; the type where you keep wanting to turn each page to read more. In particular I revered the way in which the entire novel is underpinned by factual contemporary plant/tree/forest science. Sometimes it is possible to overstate the value of an opinion, event, an object, or a person but in the case of Richard Power’s book The Overstory I feel strongly it should be compulsory reading for the world. As he remarks somewhere in the story but using my words, you cannot change behaviours by spouting facts only by telling appropriate stories. Powers has given us one such story and a mighty story at that.