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Into the woods – ‘The Overstory’

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Everyone has heard the expression “can’t see the forest for the trees,” but few have stopped and unpacked how bleak the repercussions of that outlook might be.

We view each tree on an individual level, a resource provided by the Earth for us to consume. To our mind, no single tree makes a difference – an attitude that results in rampant overharvesting that ultimately destroys the whole. And to many minds, the forest is far more than sum of its parts.

We can’t see the forest for the trees.

That truth is a foundational underpinning of “The Overstory” (W.W. Norton & Company, $27.95), the newest novel by National Book Award-winning writer Richard Powers. A group of seemingly disparate people are each drawn in their way to nature – to trees. Their paths are very different ones, though they find ways to connect – some thoroughly, others glancingly or tangentially. They are the trees that make up this forest.

Nine people, from all walks of life. Nine people driven by a connection to the unseen world of trees. Direct, indirect, consciously or not, each of them feels that presence – a presence being threatened by the never-ending march of progress.

There’s a woman doing groundbreaking research on the communal nature of trees. A man who invents one of the world’s most popular online games. A former military pilot saved by trees and a driven engineer soothed by them. An artist inspired by his family’s tree-inspired legacy and a party girl enlightened by a near-death experience. A psychology student inspired by eco-activists and a married couple at odds over their entanglement. All of them bound together through ties both visible and invisible.

Through the novels four sections – “Roots,” “Trunk,” “Crown” and “Seeds” – we meet each of these individuals and watch as their connections grow stronger. They become conscious of the world around them in a way that few people ever are, sensing the inherent interconnectedness of the forest in ways that they articulate in different ways. Each are driven toward the same end – saving the forests from the greedy advancement of man and allowing them to live for the sake of mankind.

“The Overstory” drifts through time and space as it visits each of these people, exploring their interlocking dynamics before setting them back onto individual paths. Their passions burn brighter even as they grow more shaded and complicated. Past and present collide, and why not – on the time scale of a forest, man’s entire industrialization as a species might as well be an eyeblink.

According to Merriam-Webster, the term “overstory” can refer to two things: the layer of foliage in a forest canopy or the trees contributing to an overstory. And that’s precisely what Richard Powers has given us - an overstory in both senses of the word.

There’s no disputing the author’s prose gifts, but he may well have outdone himself with this one. The richness and complexity of the interlocking arcs and blossoming narrative … it’s just so remarkable to read. There’s an organic ease to the connectivity; none of it feels forced or contrived. It all results in a weird sort of dichotomous sense of inevitability – no individual connection or interaction feels undeniable, while the push of the overarching narrative is unstoppable in its gentle power.

Powers also demonstrates a flexibility of tone that allows for the many differences in mindsets and settings; the shifts are subtle, but it’s almost as if each character’s story is being told by a slightly different teller. Yet it fits together seamlessly, with every narrative variable slotting into place and filling a vital role in the big picture. It’s a book in constant conversation with itself – a conversation to which it would be well worth your time to listen.

This is an exceptional work from one of the greatest novelists of his generation, a book that lingers in the consciousness long after the last page is turned. The narrative interweaving is as quietly intricate as any root system, with each story both supported and supportive. It is mesmerizing to read and nigh-impossible to put down.

In short, “The Overstory” sees the forest AND the trees … and shares them both with you.

Last modified on Wednesday, 11 April 2018 15:00

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