June Book Review - "The Overstory"

Jun 13, 2018

National Book Award-winner Richard Powers takes readers deep into the lives of the world's oldest and grandest life form. Bobbie Pyron has this month's KPCW Book Reivew of Power's new novel, "The Overstory."

Imagine a living, breathing being that communicates, procreates, protects its family, learns, remembers, records important life events, builds communities—but does all that not just over years, but centuries. And imagine a novel with heroes 300 feet and taller and hundreds—sometimes thousands—of years old. This is not a fantasy story, this is Richard Powers new novel, THE OVERSTORY.  And its heroes are right in your own back yard: trees.

THE OVERSTORY is a collection of nine seemingly unrelated short stories featuring trees-- mulberry, American chestnut, fig tree, Spanish Oak, banyan, just to name a few, and the puny humans living in their shadows. There’s an intellectual property lawyer, amatuer actress, photographer, a woman back from the dead, a virtual reality game designer, an engineer, a plant botanist. In one way or another, for good or for ill, all their lives are changed by the trees.  Luckily, and to Powers credit, these characters don’t all snap together at some predictable moment like a contrived flash mob. Instead, their connection slowly, beautifully unfurls like a leaf in the spring time. As the revelations and connections slowly unfold, the reader is jolted with sure glimpses of the cleverly shadowed connections among the previous stories. Chance encounters. Photographs seen. Words written. Trees will bring these small lives together into large acts of war, love, loyalty, betrayal and hope.  My only disappointment in THE OVERSTORY is that it was, predictably, a greedy timber company planning to cut down one of the last virgin stands of California redwoods that bring these characters together.

But that’s a small quibble when you’re reading an epic written by a master. As Margaret Atwood herself said of Powers, “it’s not possible for him to write an uninteresting book.” THE OVERSTORY is full of tree facts and trivia ranging from mind-blowing to fun, but the seams of Powers extensive research never shows. These facts are brought to us by fully-formed characters who are sweet, funny, broken, naïve, and deeply human. And all the while, the trees remain, doing what they do generation after generation, completely beyond our limited imagination and compassion.

A good novel makes you see things differently. I can promise you this: if you read Richard Power’s THE OVERSTORY, you will never look at our aspens, pines, and scrub oaks the same. You’ll look up into its branches and wonder, what’s going on up there? And the trees will answer, “Just listen. Listen…”

THE OVERSTORY, by Richards Powers, is available for your reading pleasure at the Park City Library.