Writing and reading friends have been asking me for ages whether I’d read The Overstory (Vintage Penguin Random House 2018) by Richard Powers, the winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and my answer was always that it was on my list but I hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Now, after finally reading this novel, I understand what all the fuss is about. I, too, will now be one of those people who go around exhorting people to pick up this book. It is, quite simply, a remarkable achievement, both in terms of its literary value and also because of the ideas and philosophies it explores.
The book begins with seemingly short stories about nine different, unconnected strangers. Each short story (or chapter) is a masterclass, with a depth and specificity to the characters that I found similar to the writing of Elizabeth Strout. As a reader, you become completely immersed in that particular story, and that individual character. Then about halfway through the book, the separate and disparate journeys of all these people begin to coalesce and to come together in surprising ways. From random meetings to well-established friendships, from romantic relationships to group protests, the members of this core group are united by their interest in the natural world and their own roles in saving it from catastrophe. Over many decades, as the characters age, we are privy to their altruistic dreams, their personal ambitions, their willing sacrifices and their moral and ethical dilemmas.
But all of this – the human aspect, the people – is an undercurrent to the main story, the ‘Overstory’, that of the life of trees. This is an amazing book about climate change, environmental issues, global protests, scientific advances in understanding about plant life, the symbiotic relationship between humans and plants and animals, the co-dependency of all life upon all other life, the passing of time, the invention of technological advances, and acts of war and sacrifice. If ever there was a book about the meaning of life, this is it.
I don’t know why I put off reading this book for so long. I think that in my head I had it pegged as non-fiction, or as something dense and didactic. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, this book is full of actual facts about the ever-evolving wondrous knowledge scientists are discovering every day about trees and plant life. And yes, this is a novel with a message. But the facts are woven so skilfully into the narrative that we absorb them without even realising it. And the message – about the hundreds of years it takes trees to develop an ecosystem that we fell with one sharp cut of a chainsaw; about the all the things we don’t know about how trees communicate with each other, warn each other of impending danger, and heal each other; about what goes on below the ground with root systems and fungi; about the value of a naturally-fallen log to host whole subsystems of ecological growth – this message is delivered so seamlessly that rather than feeling like we are being taught something, it almost feels as if this story is peeling away layers of understanding to get at a kernel of truth that cannot be anything other than deeply real; we are mystified as to how we could not have understood this truth sooner.
It has been said that this book ‘leaves you with a slightly adjusted frame of reference’ and that ‘time matters differently’ and I couldn’t agree more. The characters and ideas and information from these pages will sit with me for a long time. I will never be able to unsee what I have learnt. I will forever after look at the natural world, trees in particular, through different eyes. I understand now why my friends, especially my friends who are interested in nature, love this book so much. It is a love story to trees. It speaks of more varieties of trees than I knew existed. It is a meditation on the value of the earth and all its natural beauty. It is a comprehensive exploration of so many aspects of roots, seeds, leaves, canopies, trunks, crowns, boughs, flowers and pollination that have never before been collected together into such an impressive work of fiction.
There is too much in this book to even begin to discuss individual characters and their stories. Suffice to say that while every single one is engaging, the combination of their entangled journeys is absolutely riveting. I guarantee you will learn things about nature you didn’t realise. And I also guarantee you will be completely hooked by the story, and by the themes of betrayal, sacrifice, loyalty, courage, idealism, friendship, love, grief, despair, loneliness, greed, ambition, family, heritage, aging and death that underpin all great stories.