I have to apologise for what will be quite a short review. I’ve just finished this, with only hours to spare, and I’m also cross with myself for not managing the entire shortlist in time for tonight’s announcement. I’ll carry on reviewing the rest soon.
I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do this book full justice – work is beckoning, sadly. My rushing to get this review out is particularly irritating, given the nature of The Overstory’s focus on the chasm between human time scales and those lived by trees, these essential beings who have been around since time immemorial. What is absolutely the case, however, is that I don’t think I’ve ever read a book which has utterly changed the way I look at the natural world around me. Read this novel and you’ll see trees very differently.
Powers’ novel is broken into four sections. The first, Roots, establishes the stories of his key characters, all seemingly quite disparate at this stage. I enjoyed the way that, for most of the stories, time speeds up as the characters are established, giving an almost cinematic quality to the chapters. One of the most moving focuses on Patricia Westerford, an academic who posits fascinating, and ultimately very challenging, ideas about what trees can do. The overstory, in terms of trees, is the top canopy in a forest, and Powers builds his narrative in a similar way, bringing his characters together – the connections they make could also be compared to the way trees’ roots seek each other out and connect up. Subsequent sections develop the central stories which explore the humans’ interactions with, and attempts to save, the disappearing forests of America.
There’s a good deal of damage done by humans here, both to each other and to the natural world they actually depend upon. This doesn’t make for an easy read in this sense, and there is no doubt we are incredibly stupid and short-sighted as a species. There are moments of optimism to hang onto, but in a week when a UN panel make dire predictions about climate change in the next two years, Powers’ book is tapping into a turning point in our history we dismiss at our peril. My money tonight will be metaphorically on The Long Take, but The Overstory is perhaps, after all, bigger than the Booker.