The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Overstory Richard PowersShortlisted 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.

16 Comments

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16 responses to “The Overstory by Richard Powers

  1. Since you read 60%, I think you got a fair idea of the novel. I found it worthwhile reading to the end and it was among my favourite books of last year, but I would agree that it was sprawling and one or more storylines could have been cut — Neelay’s in particular.

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  2. Pat

    Hi, I read this book a little while ago, in general I tend to agree with you about multi stranded stories where the structure is so preponderant that I dream of the days before computers!
    I did enjoy this book, and certainly learned a great deal, but found a number of the intertwining stories of considerably less interest than others
    Pat

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  3. The minute I saw that phrase “structural concept” I thought of Luminaries. I read that book completely unaware that it had an astrological structure and honestly couldn’t see that it added anything to the book. Authors might think its very important when they;re writing the book but I do wonder if they think whether it has the same meaning to the reader.

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  4. Thanks for this review. I love the idea of this book and enjoyed the sample chapter but have wondered… I noticed my library had it available as an audiobook and thought that might be a better way of tackling it.

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  5. Ethan S.

    I definitely get Cloud Atlas vibes from this one too!

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  6. I persevered to the end, & loved the book. And, BTW, I am not a fan of doorstopper sized novels.

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  7. I finished all the books you listed with different views on each one. I happily read every word written by David Mitchell even though occasionally it is a struggle to keep every strand in its place, until right towards the end when it all ties up. Barbara Kingsolver covers many of the same topics as Richard Powers but her narratives are more linear and I would imagine appeal to a much wider audience, I defy anyone not be moved by the main two strands in Flight Behaviour. I loved The Luminaries but it could have been shortened a bit; I was less enthusiastic about 4 3 2 1 but felt that it delivered an excellent punch by the end, though also rather too long. (Though I read fast so 500 pages is not a stretch for me, I will admit). Overstory I thought was over-hyped, too intricate and some strands could easily have been junked without altering the drift of the narrative. However, I do suspect that it would appeal to readers who are already signed up to the message: not just tree huggers but also anyone remotely aware of the climate impact of trees versus forest clearance. Some passages were really moving, and others tedious. I read it to the end and it all hanged together finally, but took rather too long to get there. I applaud the message, would take the messenger to task for overwriting. Thank you for this post though, I always enjoy reading them.

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  8. I think I wouldn’t have got past the ‘concentric rings of interlocking fable’ on the blurb!

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