Caught by the River

The Overstory

Andy Childs | 31st March 2018

Andy Childs reviews the latest novel from the multi-award-winning Richard Powers. 

It seems that all of the novels that I have ever read that concern themselves with nature and the environment have either been eulogies to its beauty and splendour, survival dramas where man inevitably comes off second best, or bleak, dystopian visions of a world irretrievably damaged. Richard Powers’ new novel, The Overstory, is the first I’ve read that builds a tangled, multi-layered story around the threat that our species poses to the very survival of the natural world and that places trees firmly at the centre of his narrative – the noble life force that informs the trajectory of all the other characters’ lives; ancient, wise, stoic, life-affirming, misunderstood, taken for granted, and now, catastrophically vulnerable.

Make no mistake, this book is a confrontational work; a fiercely passionate, no-holds barred challenge to the world at large, and to the authorities that preside over such matters in particular, to fully grasp the importance of trees to the planet’s well-being, to respect their exalted position in the world’s ecosystems, and, most importantly, to curtail the voracious logging that has now been acknowledged as one of the most crucial factors in climate change, more damaging even than car fume emissions.

Powers is, by any sensible estimation, very much an under-appreciated novelist over here; not so much by literary critics and other writers, but more by a public that appears perhaps wary of weighty books with big, serious themes. Powers’ novels are nothing if not ambitious and expansive, bristling with ideas and connections, unafraid to challenge the reader’s intellect and patience. I discovered him with The Time of Our Singing, a vast, emotionally draining story of three musically-talented children of mixed-race parents and their struggle to succeed in an era when the civil rights movement and the ‘tragedy of race in America’ were redefining the ‘American dream’. The almost-as-lengthy – and for me, more difficult – The Echo Maker followed: an intense psychological study of the wider affects of a brain injury, and then Orfeo, a novel that managed to combine avant-garde music and bio-terrorism in a sweeping, reflective and absorbing tale of redemption and ambition. Powers doesn’t exactly churn them out – all of his books have the mark of  vigorous intellectual exactitude and scrupulous time-consuming research about them – and so it has been a four-year wait for The Overstory.

The book is divided into four parts, corresponding to the divisions in a tree – roots, trunk, crown, and seeds. In the ‘roots’ section we are suitably introduced to the nine disparate characters whose lives will be so profoundly shaped by all things arboreal. There’s Nicholas Hoel, the keeper of a near-sacred book of photographs of the same American chestnut tree spanning four generations – a tree that somehow survived the devastating blight that virtually killed off the rest of its species in the U.S. There’s Mimi Mia, one of three daughters of a Chinese immigrant who, when he’d decided his life was done, blew his brains out under a mulberry tree. There’s Adam Appich, a nature-loving misfit who basically gives up on the human race. There’s Ray Brinkman, an intellectual property lawyer and Dorothy Cazaly, a stenographer, ‘two people for whom trees mean almost nothing’ until Dorothy wraps her car around a linden tree, their relationship wavers, and they begin to re-evaluate their lives. There’s Douglas Pavlicek, traumatised by a dubious psychology experiment, shot out of the sky in Cambodia, and saved when his parachute snags in, yes you guessed it, a tree. There’s Neelay Mehta, a computer-mad Indian boy living in Silicon Valley who is paralysed for life after falling from a tree. There’s Patricia Westerford, a wayward student who nearly kills herself with poison mushrooms and then immerses herself in the secret life of trees. And lastly there’s Olivia Vandergriff, the tragic heroine of the book – a failed actuary student who survives accidental electrocution, hears voices and answers the call of environmental activism.

These characters, outsiders and misfits mostly – perhaps a seemingly random cross-section of American youth? – appear to have a varying degree of control over their own lives. But no matter what direction they choose, or have chosen for them, they are inextricably drawn towards a profound realisation of the sovereignty, the inevitability, the undeniability of the natural world. In the ‘trunk’ section their lives merge and grow towards a common goal. Nicholas and Olivia connect and occupy an ancient giant redwood. They live in an elaborate house high in the tree in order to protect it from loggers. They are joined by Adam until all three are eventually forced down and the tree felled. Undeterred they head for a place called the Free Bioregion of Cascadia to resume their protective mission. They are joined there by Mimi Mia and Douglas and as their uncompromising stance against the rampant loggers hardens so the violence against them intensifies. Mimi suffers a facial injury and Doug gets rammed in his car by a logger’s truck. Increasingly desperate, the five protagonists resort to eco-terrorism with tragic consequences. Meanwhile Ray and Dorothy continue their troubled and childless marriage. Just after a fierce, breaking-up row Ray has a stroke and Dorothy is beholden to care for him. And then back in Silicon Valley Neelay is becoming a very rich man having developed a problem-solving computer game called Destiny, each manifestation of which takes the player closer to an all-encompassing virtual reality. Neelay though becomes frustrated that ultimately his game is not reality and comes up with the idea of creating a game that actually does solve the world’s environmental problems.

The guiding light and most prominent intellectual force in the book, though, is Patricia Westerford. She develops the theory that trees have the ability to communicate with each other, act in unison, and are so complex and sophisticated in their relationship with their environment that they should be accorded a level of intelligence that we ignore at our peril. Her thesis, initially applauded, is subsequently ridiculed by ‘experts’ and, chastened and disillusioned, she retreats into obscurity until eventually being persuaded to resurrect and expand her ideas into a book, The Secret Forest, which becomes a revered text for Neelay, Dorothy and Mimi Mia. We are now moving into the ‘crown’ section of the book, where the personal consequences of this noble calling become apparent. Not to give too much away, but it is a bumpy ride for most of them. Political activism at this level is turbulent, chaotic and messy. As readers we are left to consider what is and could be truly effective in overturning an entrenched economic and political system that is surely and, not-now-so-slowly, eroding our planet of its natural resources and destroying the delicate ecosystems that keep us, and all life, from extinction. Does eco-terrorism work? Probably not. The world’s compromised legal systems will put paid to that. Is it possible for the logging companies and land rapists to have some sort of mass epiphany, begin to comprehend how wondrous and sacred our natural world is, and change their destructive ways? Hardly likely. Or will it be the growing realisation that, as a species, we are blindly annihilating the one life force that is keeping us all alive?  Powers has Patricia Westerford quote Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore in a keynote speech on ‘the value of trees in a sustainable future’ : “Trees stand at the heart of ecology, and they must come to stand at the heart of human politics.” We can but hope.

Powers’ characters – those that survive – retain and offer hope as the ‘seeds’ of their resistance and of the knowledge imparted in Patricia Westerford’s book are blown out into the wide world.

The Overstory is a remarkably affecting book. Powers’ language is taut, elegant, complex, and he appears incapable of writing an awkward or cumbersome sentence. It’s also an astonishingly rich book. Rich in ideas and imagination. Rich in drama, wisdom and truly illuminating facts about trees. I was inevitably drawn to Peter Wohlleben’s acclaimed book The Hidden Life of Trees (identical, I would suggest, to Patricia Westerford’s fictional The Secret Forest) for more of the same and as I reluctantly neared the end of The Overstory (on, appropriately, International Forest Day) I read that a UN-backed report has stated that man’s destruction of nature is ‘as bad as climate change’ and that ‘conversion of forests to croplands has devastated species on which our climate and economy depend’. Closer to home I also came upon this letter, which starkly illustrates the fact that none of us are exempt from the effects of indiscriminate tree slaughter.

Quite apart from being an absorbing read, Powers has performed a valuable service in highlighting this dangerous and senseless assault on our forests. Ironically of course trees have been felled to produce this substantial book, but if we judge it by the dictum offered by Patricia in her aforementioned speech – that ‘what you make from a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down’, then The Overstory suceeds far beyond reproach.


The Overstory (hardback, 505 pages) is published on 5 April by William Heinemann.