Wednesday 5 June 2019

The Overstory by Richard Powers

I do love to theme my holiday reads where possible. A recent week long Far North Queensland break in beautiful, sunny Port Douglas on the edge of the Daintree Rainforest, gave me a chance to finally read this year's Pulitzer Prize winning book by Richard Power's The Overstory. (I also packed a book of essays called City of Trees by Sophie Cunningham as a companion read - to be reviewed soon).

The Australian cover of The Overstory has been one of my favourite designs throughout 2018 and it is now one of my favourite reads of 2019. In trying to work though my feelings about this book though, it's hard to go past Benjamin Markovits' Guardian review of The Overstory, where he said,
It’s an extraordinary novel, which doesn’t mean that I always liked it. Martin Amis’s brilliant description of what it’s like to admire a book – the stages you go through, from resistance to reluctance, until you finally reach acceptance in the end – is probably more linear than what usually happens. Because reluctance and acceptance can go hand in hand...

It’s an astonishing performance. Without the steadily cumulative effect of a linear story, Powers has to conjure narrative momentum out of thin air, again and again. And mostly he succeeds. Partly because he’s incredibly good at describing trees, at turning the science into poetry...

There is something exhilarating, too, in reading a novel whose context is wider than human life. Like
Moby-Dick, The Overstory leaves you with a slightly adjusted frame of reference. Time matters differently; you look at the trees outside your window more curiously. Suspiciously, even.

Yes, yes, yes! It really is extraordinary and astonishing and exhilarating, with some qualifications.

Initially I thought that following the narratives of nine individuals would be hard to track and I made a few character notes on each one, during their origin chapters, but I didn't really need to in the end. Most of the characters was so fully realised which such rich backstories, that they were all clearly delineated in my mind.

I found the story mesmerising and haunting. Trees crept into my dreams and I found myself touching trees and smelling them on my morning walks, more so than usual. Our day trip into the Daintree even gave me a chance to hug an old, old tree with gratitude.

I also learnt so much. About the catastrophic chestnut blight and the so-called nature strips left by the logging companies on the side of the road, so that from the car you cannot see that entire mountainsides of forest have been logged behind them. About how trees migrate and communicate with each other. How they protect themselves and those around them from infestations. How intricate a forest system really is. And about how quickly we're losing the old forests of the world.

My qualifications?

At times I was concerned the story might tip over into earnestness or become too worthy for it's own good, but Powers reined it in each time.

I experienced resistance a few times - especially during the activism phase of the novel. Adam, the reluctant activist character was the one who helped me through.

At times it felt a bit too easy or convenient to create a divide between those who wanted to save the old growth forests and those nasty, greedy capitalists, who didn't. We all know it's not as black and white as that and that there's a lot of nuance and complexity in between.

The really hard part, though, is coming away from this story, wanting to help, wanting to make a difference, wanting for everyone to see how important it is for all of us to maintain diversity of species, but coming up with no real solution. The activism section of the book showed how futile it is in the face of rampant materialism and capitalism. Those advocating jobs and usefulness (in the name of making more money for themselves) will never see the point of long-haired layabouts, sponging off government handouts. And any scientific study is dismissed, ridiculed or declared 'unclear' - needing more time and more study before any action can possibly be considered - as another forest is cleared.

The only option Power leaves us with, in the end, is,

The best arguments in the world won't change a person's mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.

The Overstory is a good story. It's poetic, urgent, timely, rich in detail, epic in nature and wears it's heart on it's sleeve. It is meaningful and satisfying.

I'm not sure we can say that this leaves us with a particularly optimist view of the human race, although, we can feel pretty sure that the trees will survive, somehow, somewhere, no matter what.

My copy of The Overstory in the Daintree Rainforest
Favourite Quote:
My simple rule of thumb, then, is this: when you cut down a tree, what you make from it should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.

Favourite Character: The entire Hoel family who start this novel off with such a powerful generational story.

Favourite of Forget: Unforgettable

  • Shortlisted 2018 Man Booker Prize
  • Winner 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
  • Winner 2019 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award
  • Longlisted for the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award
1/20 Books of Winter
The Overstory was read during my week in Far North Queensland - where the average daytime temperature was a glorious 27℃. The same week in Dublin had a chillier average of 17℃.


  1. Great review....but this book does not appeal to me. My choice is The Hidden LIfe of Trees (Wohlleben) is less epic (288 pg) and less activist. :)

    1. Yes it will be a book that puts some people off, it nearly put me off, but I'm glad I overcame my reservations and jumped right in. It was beautiful and haunting and will stay with me for a very long time.

  2. Excellent review! I just read a the kindle sample and was so impressed... they gave me the first section about the Hoel family. I'm on the library hold list for the ebook now, but may visit the bookstore if it doesn't come in soon.

    1. All the nine stories were fascinating in their own right. I had to stop between each one and have a break though, to let one origin story settle before starting the next.
      The bulk of the story though, is how they come together in various ways to (try to) save the forests.

  3. I tried the audio but it ended up a DNF as I found it too tough to distinguish who was who on audio. The writing/descriptions are very good though.

    1. I can see how that would be a problem with an audio of this book - it was a lot of characters to keep track of at the start.

  4. This does sound an amazing read and I'm OK with a bit of activism (I can tolerate Barbara Kingsolver, which many can't do).

    1. This should be right up your alley then Liz! It also has the benefit of being quite beautiful and almost poetic in places.

  5. I am reading this book right now and find it so lovely. I just finished the first portion with chapters named for the characters. Now I enter the second part, with chapters named for tree parts.

    1. The nine origin stories were fascinating although the ninth one had me very puzzled - how on earth was he going to go forward with the nine into the next section?

  6. I finally read and reviewed The Overstory. What a great book. I liked the same quote as your did, who wouldn't?

    I was not happy with last year's Pulitzer Prize winner but since you and some other reader friends recommended it, I took the plunge and did not regret it. Thanks.


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