The Overstory — Richard Powers

I’ve made little secret of the fact that this is the book I shall be rooting for tomorrow. I think in many respects, it’s the most ambitious on the list, as well as being very well crafted and, in places, highly moving. It’s also not without its flaws, of which more in a moment.

The Overstory is an ecological call to arms, primarily focusing on trees, and following nine different story threads which intertwine throughout the book. This is ambitious, and the ambition is impressive in itself. But even more impressive is that Powers accomplishes it successfully. The characters he describes are distinct, compelling and thoroughly plausible.

Powers’ strengths here are twofold: firstly, he is very good at portraying relationships and motivations. His characters act according to clearly identifiable traits and desires and because of this, keeping track of the wide cast of characters is actually quite easy. Their clear motivations mean one quickly settles into the book, and I could readily identify with many of them. Secondly, Powers packages his research in an engaging fashion. I came away from reading this knowing more about some trees than I had going in, and wanting to know more. Some passion, albeit fleeting, was stoked and that’s an indicator to me of quality.

The book’s emotional peak falls 70% of the way through, and I found it incredibly moving. Two characters are brought together quite quickly and Powers portrays their relationship beautifully. The peak is crushing, and I shan’t say more. But its crushing-ness (yes, it’s not a word, but I’m running with it) speaks to the power of Powers’ (yup, I’m running with that too) narrative.

However, this is also the book’s biggest problem: that it peaks too soon. Sometimes this can work, and Powers clearly is trying to use the remaining 30% to some extent to explore the emotional fallout of a key event. But his skills lay in the build-up, and the back third of the novel felt more like clean-up than anything. The end itself, when it comes, is faintly unsatisfying, at least in a couple of the storylines.

I’ve been questioning my preference for The Overstory over the past couple of days, hence the delay on the review. Washington Black has its flaws, but at least it’s consistently very good. While The Overstory is never bad, I would probably venture that you could stop reading after page 350(ish – crucially, read to the end of “Trunk”) and have a phenomenal experience. So do I feel comfortable saying a book I wouldn’t necessarily recommend you read in its entirety should win?

I think so. Powers’ writing is incredibly strong and that emotional peak I mentioned is just that good. The dilemma he poses reminded me of Martin Amis’ comment, as reported by the New Yorker, when asked to name Ian McEwan’s greatest achievement: he replied “The first 200 pages of Atonement”. The first 350 pages of The Overstory deserve to win the Booker Prize this year. Even if it means taking the other 150 pages along for the ride.

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