The Overstory

Recommendation: Oh my goodness yes, I loved this

Where to read: Armchair, fire, long weekend

Read with: New York Breakfast tea

In brief: Private Life of Plants meets Lord of the Rings, The Overstory destroyed me. It combines brilliant writing, an epic story and a completely different way of looking at the world.


By way of background, I cried three times on the bus home during the first 50 something pages in the iBooks sample. I promptly bought it and let it sit in my bookshelf for 6 months before picking it up one Saturday and devouring it in an afternoon. I moved from my armchair only to obtain tea to replenish my tear ducts.

The Overstory is a stunning example of epic fiction informed by the environmental collapse that is the defining challenge of this era, much as the Cold War shaped previous iterations. Considering it is largely contemporary, this comparison to epic (or high) fantasy in particular may seem inappropriate but I think it’s a useful frame of reference.

For a start, the novel follows nine **hint, hint** primary characters (with a large cast of supporting characters), each of whom have their own internally consistent narrative and character arc but whose journeys’ intersect and intertwine at various points through the novel. One of the characters has a near death experience and becomes the “seer” or wizard of the story, there’s the wise old woman, the technological one, the jaded warrior, the woman with a tragic past on a journey of self discovery and the couple that falls in love along the way.

The action takes place over decades in suitably exotic and ancient landscapes. This requires extensive, descriptive world building, which the morons on Goodreads naturally characterise as “tedious”, “boring” and “unnecessary”. There’s a quest, there’s an evil villain (albeit in an abstract sense), the required key character death and the struggle to return to daily life once the adventure is over.

Key themes include legacies and family, self-sacrifice, loyalty, revenge, history, authority and law, “why good people do bad things”, human rapaciousness and, of course, the clash between humanity and industrialisation and the natural world (cf. The Scouring of the Shire). And you cannot tell me that the trees aren’t taking the place of magic, not because anything Powers writes about is magic because it isn’t, but simply because it is so wondrous.

I mean I’m ticking off conventions here people…and the numerous Lord of the Rings and Tolstoy references don’t hurt either.

For all that, the most impressive achievement is Powers’ uncanny ability to write about trees. It is positively mesmeric in places and will genuinely alter the way you think about the tree outside your window. To whit, I finish with Robert Frost:

Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me.

Vague dream head lifted out of the ground,
And thing next most diffuse to cloud,
Not all your light tongues talking aloud
Could be profound.

But tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,
And if you have seen me when I slept,
You have seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost.

That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.

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