The Overstory: A Novel By Richard Powers -- A Sort-Of Review by Jim Maloney

Last month I finished a couple of books I probably wouldn’t have gotten around to were it not for our ongoing pandemic. The first fiction book I have read in a long time was Richard Powers’ latest monumental novel, The Overstory. As I pondered writing a review, I decided to just include the intro to Alex Preston’s interview with Richard from The Guardian. Then I’d follow up with notes on related material.

“There was something fitting about hearing the news that Richard Powers’ The Overstory had been awarded the (2018) Pulitzer Prize just as Extinction Rebellion activists took to the streets of London. Powers’ richly layered novel engages profoundly with questions of protest and conservation.

It’s a book about the intricacy and beauty of trees, and about nine characters who are drawn into deep relationships with these trees. The novel takes a radical approach to time, seeking to present the lives of its “sentinel” trees alongside those of its human characters, intertwining normal narratological time with life “at the speed of wood”. The Overstory is Powers’ 12th novel and yet, until his Pulitzer win, he was often referred to as “the best writer you’ve never heard of.” Alex Preston 

As a mark of the quality of the remarkable writing I note that the website “Goodreads” (links below) includes13 pages of quotes:

•  goodreads.com/work/quotes/57662223-the-overstory

•  theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/16/richard-powers-interview-overstory

•  theguardian.com/books/2019/may/11/richard-powers-interview-the-overstory-radicalised

Powers notes in the interview that he uses the research and the writing of his books to change his own orientation in seeing and comprehending the world. While reading, I recognized themes and echoes from many books and articles I had previously read in my non-fiction readings. If you have already read any of these you will find some familiar territory related to the botanical side of the novel. Richard goes on to interweave the life stories of nine main human characters with the lives of multiple species of trees and the forests they populate.

The book is filled with human tragedies in the classic sense and asks profound questions that, in the end, he does not answer, but instead leaves us with only the immense foundational groundwork of some 500 pages to work out our own.

A powerful book I’m glad to have read.

Related books and other sources I’ve read:

David Haskell, The Songs of Trees

Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss

Jon Luoma, The Hidden Forest, 

Brodie, Goodrich, and Swanson, Forest Under Story

Suzanne Simard: sciencefocus.com/nature/mycorrhizal-networks-wood-wide-web/

H.J. Andrews Research Forest:  andrewsforest.oregonstate.edu/  or  https://www.fs.usda.gov/pnw/experimental-forests-and-ranges/hj-andrews-experimental-forest