Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, ‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers brings together nine stories in which the characters grow to realise the extent of the ecological crisis, particularly where trees are concerned. It is difficult to elaborate further on the plot in which the structural concept is, according to the blurb, based around “concentric rings of interlocking fable” which sees the various strands gradually become interlinked. The diverse cast of characters includes a war veteran, a biologist, a childless married couple and a college student who has a near-death experience. The first part ‘Roots’ reads more like a collection of short stories in which trees feature in one way or another. However, links between the characters start to emerge in the second part ‘Trunk’ and the narrative finally starts to read more like a novel.
It is fairly rare for me to not finish a book when I have read a substantial amount of it, but I reached 60% of ‘The Overstory’ on my Kindle before deciding I didn’t really need to read any further. Certain characters and storylines didn’t add much to the central point being made, particularly Neelay the paraplegic computer game developer. Even though Powers is very good at covering a large amount of family backstory for each main character, at over 500 pages, it is much longer than it needs to be. A more pared down version dropping some of the less essential plot strands would have got the central message across without so much signposting of key themes and important topical issues, especially when the book will most likely be read by those who are already converted to the cause.
Overall, I would still recommend ‘The Overstory’ for those who enjoy dense multi-stranded narratives in a similar vein to Cloud Atlas (coincidentally another book I didn’t finish). The prose is very well written and the focus on the natural world with central themes of evolution and sustainability are reminiscent of Barbara Kingsolver’s work. More often than not though, I still tend to struggle with epic-length books where I feel the structure dominates or overpowers the narrative – The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton is another example, although I did enjoy 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster a lot, probably because it helped that the characters overlapped in the different strands. I would be interested to hear from anyone who finished ‘The Overstory’, and if they believe it is worth persevering to the end.