Bewilderment – Richard Powers

I got the ‘this-will-be-amazing’ tingles as I started this novel, and so it was – I will forever remember finishing reading Bewilderment in a beautifully sunny Somerset park on our way home from Cornwall, emotionally stunned by the ending and completely unaware of my surroundings and those physically around me. To read a book where you lose yourself in another world is such a massive thing, when you stop and think about it, and not dissimilar to what Theo and Robin do in the novel when they go searching amongst other planets. After Robin has had the chance to be involved in experimental therapeutic treatment which allows him to train his thoughts to match those of others, he can see the potential for such technology in schools:

‘Everyone would have to learn what it felt like to be something else. Think of the problems that would solve!’

And that’s one of the key points – we’re in the mess we’re in because too few people, world leaders very much included, can or will put themselves in another’s place. It takes a bright and highly imaginative child to highlight this. It doesn’t need advanced technologies either – perhaps Bewilderment should be taught in schools and colleges instead.

As with The Overstory, there’s a strong focus on the environmental disaster waiting ahead (I’m somewhat encouraged by the growth of ‘cli-fi’ as a genre) but this time the canvas is smaller. The weight of his feelings is making it difficult for Robin to manage his emotions and school life is becoming increasingly fraught. As is often the case when a book has shown you a new perspective, you start seeing echoes of its ideas in other places – last week a woman wrote to The Guardian’s family advice column asking how to help her child who was feeling overwhelmed by the events in the news and the threat posed by Climate Change. We’re constantly up against a sense of time and inertia on our collective part. That’s what makes Robbie wail and makes us want him to succeed against the odds. His is a world where a Trumpian leader is in power and where big money is making the calls in order to preserve its own interests. It’s a somewhat bleak world but there are some signs of hope, not least Theo’s love for his son. And as Earth Day 2022 comes to an end, I can’t help feeling we all need to be a bit more Robin when he’s at his very best. Another utterly brilliant novel from Powers and one which everybody needs to be reading.

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