BookBrowse Reviews The Overstory by Richard Powers

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The Overstory

A Novel

by Richard Powers

The Overstory by Richard Powers X
The Overstory by Richard Powers
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2018, 512 pages
    Apr 2019, 512 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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In Overstory, a group of eco-activists plots to save the Pacific Northwest's precious forests from overzealous logging.

Many glowing adjectives can be used to describe a novel by Richard Powers: brilliant, moving, mesmerizing. But one word succinctly captures the feeling I come away with every time I put a novel of his down: awe. Of course, given that I look forward to a new Powers novel just as eagerly as my daughter waited for the next in the Harry Potters series, I will be the first one to admit I come to the table already biased. But Powers meets my ridiculously high expectations every single time. He does it again with The Overstory, a sprawling, messy, breathtaking and yes...awe-inspiring tome about trees.

If you're wondering how on earth an author can write a 500-page literary fiction volume about trees, consider this: Margaret Atwood is a huge fan. "It is not possible for Powers to write an uninteresting book," she once said. To its credit Overstory is more than merely not uninteresting: its very format – Roots, Trunk, Crown, Seeds – hints at the sprawling epic that is to come. Tucked in between the chapters Root and Trunk are the nine human branches: Nicholas Hoel, Mimi Ma, Adam Appich, Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly; Douglas Pavlicek, Neelay Mehta, Patricia Westford and Olivia Vandergriff, whose life histories intertwine to tell the story of how trees, in one way or another, profoundly root their everyday concerns. Nick Hoel, for example, is the scion of the Hoel family, generations of which have watched a single chestnut survive on their Iowa farm as the blight that scourged the rest of the country missed their precious tree. Mimi Ma is the daughter of a Chinese immigrant, an engineer who plants a mulberry in their Illinois backyard as a tenuous connection to her homeland.

If there is one flaw in this brilliant novel, it is that Powers throws in one or two characters too many. We could have easily done without Neelay Mehta or Ray and Dorothy, especially as it becomes clear that their stories are only tangential to the narrative that begins to take shape after we're a third of the way into the book.

As the story slowly gains momentum, five of the characters' paths intersect when they take a stand against indiscriminate logging in the Pacific Northwest. These sections are where the awe factor particularly kicks in. Powers is able to describe the breathtaking beauty that is being plundered and, equally important, he drives home the sobering scale of loss. As the five characters take on the Goliath, Powers zooms in and out to paint a picture of activism molded in the '90s that has urgent takeaway lessons for today.

Geeky details about trees – how sakaki tree is sacred in Shintoism, India's bejeweled wishing trees, Mayan kapoks – stud the narrative and never feel forced.

Readers will come away with a new respect for trees, and maybe even have some of the novel's activism brush off on them. Powers, a National Book Award winner for one of my all-time favorite novels, The Echo Maker, is to be commended for keeping the story front and center and not drowning it in his call to action. To apply a relevant metaphor, he does not lose the forest for the trees.

You don't have to be an environmentalist to love The Overstory. You will, however, come away with an overwhelming sense of awe. At one point, a character points out: "Humankind is deeply ill. The species won't last long. It was an aberrant experiment. Soon the world will be returned to the healthy intelligences, the collective ones. Colonies and hives." This will make you sit up and take notice. And surely that can only be a good thing?

Reviewed by Poornima Apte

This review was originally published in April 2018, and has been updated for the April 2019 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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