The Overstory by Richard Powers
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Genre: Literary Fiction
My Rating: 5/5
The Overstory is a vast novel with a dynamic cast of characters; at its core, it is the question of humanity’s compatibility with other forms of life. It is a novel that turns around the idea of man versus nature, where man is the protagonist and nature the antagonist, and makes it nature versus man, with nature as the protagonist and man as the antagonist. This is a story about trees, but it is not told from the perspective of trees, but rather those who have lived their lives alongside trees—and knowingly or not, formed a relationship with the objects that at some point they might have believed to be nearly inanimate. It explores complex crevices of our relationship to nature and shows that, like relationships between people, there is a give and a take. And also, just like relationships between people, imbalance in that give and take can be disastrous.
What was most striking to me about this novel was the way its form mirrors that of a tree. It starts with the seeds that would one day grow into the characters that it focuses on. Patiently, it nurtures those seeds until they pop up from beneath the soil and begin to intertwine around one another as they grow upward. As the characters form a trunk together, they continue to grow, and just as a trunk they begin to diverge from one another. Branches grow out in other directions, some fall off, but like a fallen tree in a forest, they cultivate a plethora of life, even after the life that they have known has transformed into something different. This carefully crafted novel feels groundbreaking in the way that it grows, and is breathtaking in the overall image that it is able to craft.
On several levels this novel is epic in proportion—in its vast and dynamic cast of characters and in its actual length, but there is something else too. Reading it felt like a fantasy novel set in the modern world, particularly during the middle portion. There is a natural magic at play in this book, the whispering of trees, but also a sense of good and evil that goes beyond such a simple binary. This was another aspect of this novel that stood out as interesting to me. While I would certainly categorize it as a literary work, I think that it successfully borrows from tropes present in a lot of genre writing and manages to subvert and disguise them in a way that makes the story exciting while still feeling like a work of art.
I have always appreciated and admired trees while knowing relatively little about them. This novel changed that, not only because it is dripping with interesting facts about trees and the ecosystems they build, but because it made me curious to go out and learn more on my own. If you have ever felt even a slight connection to nature, this novel is likely to foster that connection and awaken something inside of you that you didn’t know was there. That is not to say that it stands on its stumps and pontificates about the preservation of the natural world though. Instead, it examines various relationships to trees and to nature from an empathetic viewpoint that reeled me in and kept me wanting more until the very last page.
I have nothing but praise for this novel, and I cannot recommend it enough. I think that it is a beautiful work of art that would enrich any reader’s life. With that said, I do have to make a note about how it took me over a month to finish it. When I said it was epic in proportion, I meant it. This was not an easy novel to consume, but it was well worth it.