The Overstory is an extraordinary work of fiction which claims it will change the way you look at trees. On the face of it, that’s exactly the kind of thing a publisher will write on the cover of a book to make you want to buy it (or make you want to move swiftly by, which – in this case – would be a mistake). It just happens to be true. The various human characters in the Overstory are introduced in a tour-de-force introductory section; each afforded a gripping and hugely satisfying short story, before the book settles into its growth phase, pulling the characters together a way which allows you to slowly understand that the missing character; the one which is in many ways actually telling the story, is a vast and undefinable natural force, which we might label ‘treekind’ or some such human-centred label.
Trees, in Powers’ telling, operate at a scale humans can barely discern – he makes the crucial point that, while there doesn’t seem to be any imminent danger in “harvesting” vast forests, that’s because we are seeing time on the human scale, and it might benefit us all to view ‘imminent’ from the perspective of a tree which has been growing for several hundred years.
Several of the characters become what we might label ‘eco-terrorists’ (the pivotal scene involves arson and an avoidable death), and while we’re invited to sympathise with them, the story never shies away from the reality of what’s going on – there are betrayals and prison sentences towards the end, but no redemptive or miraculous arc, allowing us to celebrate the rightness of our heroes’ quest. If this story is subversive, it’s in its unflinching portrayal of how far down the road we already are. Trees are cut down because you have to cut trees down; people’s lives depend on the cutting down of trees. The life of the trees, on the other hand….
The subversion comes in our gradual understanding that, for all the failings, the main characters are on the side of right; not that that makes the lightest difference. It ends with glimmers of hope, but thy are only glimmers; it’s set in the real world, and it’s already too late.
This is the second ‘climate emergency’ review in a row, and while this one makes its points with subtlety and glorious prose, it packs the bigger punch, because it’s all happening right now, just round the corner from where I live, and the people in this story are people I see in the street (I’m unlikely to bump into the Queen of the Netherlands, but people chaining themselves to trees to try to prevent the cutting down of the last of the old growth; they live in my neighbourhood). I was wary of what seemed to be a ‘woethy novel about issues’, but I needn’t have been, it’s a magnificent edifice, a story powerfully told and one which will resonate for many reasons.
Hugely recommended, especially if you’re looking at it and thinking ‘a book about trees? No thanks’).