Review: THE OVERSTORY by RICHARD POWERS

This review by Alexandra Shaw is part of a series of reviews of the 2018 Man Booker Shortlist.

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The Overstory is a beautiful book. It’s beautiful on the face of it, with its gorgeous colourful colour depicting snapshots of trees all merging into one. It is beautiful in its structure, with the three parts named aptly after  sections of a tree, merging and branching sometimes at unexpected moments, and sometimes at totally expected ones. It’s beautiful in its prose, which kept the distance of an overarching narrative but the personal twists and snaps of a short story. It is a structure that I can see would put some people off, people who would prefer a more singular thread to follow, but the payoff for the willing that follow the nine different strands to their conclusions is huge.  I struggle to remember a book that has conveyed quite the same sense of enormity, of centrality, and the importance of trees, or indeed anything, in our lives as efficiently and as comprehensively as this novel.

It would be good, of course, if I could compare it to another work of his that I have read, and looking at the page that lists them I am surprised both by their number and the fact that I have read none of them. The silver lining of this cloud is, of course, that I came to this book with no preconceptions, no expectations and no ideas of what I should or could expect. All I knew, as I told everyone that asked, was ‘it is a novel about trees.’ And about trees it is. Trees permeate every landscape in this book, both with their presence and noted absence. At times they are as obvious as the huge oaks that litter our English landscape, at other times as hidden and ignored as the mass of roots that lie underneath us.  At times the environmental aspect can threaten to veer into the preachy, as is always a danger with a novel on this subject, but Powers is also plain and simple with his facts, and doesn’t give every tree-hugger a free pass. One of the characters in the book manages to finally get across the importance of trees in a court case, leading to a change in the regulations.  It is counted as a success, until a member of the opposition points out that all it is likely to do is sentence more trees faster, as logging companies rush to fell as much as they can before the new law comes into action. It is a success, but it is also a failure, in the same way that in their numbers trees are most useful to us still living, but as singulars most useful as fuel. The Overstory by no means claims to have the answers, but the long hard look in the looking glass it provides is necessary, and timely.

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