The Pulitzer Prize judges: "An ingeniously structured narrative that branches and canopies like the trees at the core of the story whose wonder and connectivity echo those of the humans living amongst them."
The Overstory, a novel about trees and people who understand them, is the eco-epic of the year and perhaps the decade. Unlike the Lorax, who spoke for the trees, Richard Powers prefers to let them do their own talking. Instead of a middle distance or landscape, he offers portraits: a gallery of species — Chestnut, Mulberry, Banyan, Redwood — placing his human characters correctly in scale with that royalty. The trees tell of cellular ancestry and transmission, cycles that take place along spans of time we cannot imagine, though Powers can and does.
An ecological epic, a novel of ideas, The Overstory begins with five apparently distinct narratives and then binds them into a compelling network of connections. In this book about how we are destroying and saving our trees, the form reflects the subject, as disparate strands come together to form a canopy. Powers has managed to write a novel in which human responsibility is embedded in the most intimate, private, details of a lived life.
It traces the often cruel relationship of humans with trees across generations.
Jorgen’s descendant, Nick, follows family tradition by becoming an environmental activist, inspired by the thought that the words tree and truth ‘come from the same root’.
As befits a book that spans centuries, there is a richness and allusiveness to the prose that reaches back as far as Thoreau’s Walden, and Emerson – who supplies a wise epigraph, musing on “a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me”, when confronted with the interrelation between man and nature – is an acknowledged touchstone. The Overstory is high-minded but never precious, although it is a pity that Powers does not acknowledge Larkin’s poem The Trees, which, in its final verse, almost anticipates the themes discussed here – “Last year is dead, they seem to say/Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.”
Two things stop it from absolute collapse, from becoming a didactic work of non-fiction with some human beings thrown in. First, Powers pre-empts a lot of objections in a plot thread... Secondly, the issues and ideas which Powers raises are obviously important: every fact he puts into someone’s mouth is demonstrably true, and the scale of the human destruction he describes is sobering, for all that it comes from implausible characters. The Overstory is a book you learn from, even as you remain unsure why it had to be a novel rather than an essay.
An immense and intense homage to the arboreal world (its biological sophistication, its rich panoply of environmental benefits), the book is alive with riveting data, cogent reasoning and urgent argument. Pages that take you into menaced remnants of primeval forest or contemplate singularly splendid or fascinating trees teem with knowledge and gleam with aesthetic appeal.
So why is it only very nearly a masterpiece? First, because not all the characters are sufficiently realised; like several of Powers’s previous (always capacious and arresting) novels, the book is a kind of self-driving car, propelled by the underlying ideas, with the characters in the passenger seat. Second, it takes on too much. One plotline concerns a paraplegic Indian immigrant computer genius who creates a globally triumphant “virtual world” interactive online game called Mastery, only to realise too late that true wonder and true community are to be found in the real world of nature. This is a powerful narrative, but it feels as if it belongs to another book.
t’s an astonishing performance. Without the steadily cumulative effect of a linear story, Powers has to conjure narrative momentum out of thin air, again and again. And mostly he succeeds. Partly because he’s incredibly good at describing trees, at turning the science into poetry... And the book is full of ideas – about trees, root systems, computer games, actuarial science, group psychology (one of the characters is a sociologist).