It’s a rare occasion that a novel will stand out for its ability to profoundly affect the way the reader sees the world. The Overstory is one such work.
In this sprawling, 600-plus page novel, Powers takes us through the arcs of several protagonists whose lives – whether wholly or tenuously – have been touched by trees. Their backstories set up the first section of the book, unravelling as a series of independent novellas and short stories, before their tales intertwine and develop through the second part.
The third person present tense can be difficult to wield in a novel covering lengthy timespans, much less so in one as extensive as The Overstory. Yet Powers succeeds, lightly stepping through key events of his characters’ lives with a smooth inevitability, and we get to know each protagonist through the accumulation of their years. The downside is that we are prevented from earning a deeper connection to the characters that we might have gained otherwise. This distance can mean often the character’s presence is drowned out by the didactic impulse of the authorial voice.
Largely, Powers gets away with this thanks to his sensory command of language, which is cast to spellbinding effect, conjuring the extraordinary from the mundane. The magic unfolds in the second part, as characters Nick and Olivia come together; sensing a mutual desperation for transfiguration, they embark on a quest following the disembodied voices Olivia is beholden to. The companions become embedded in an environmental protest group and, in an evocative and memorable sequence, spend several weeks living, eating, and sleeping hundreds of feet above the ground in the branches of a giant redwood.
The reader sits with them in this swaying dark. As their pace of life slows and their perspective readapts, Nick and Olivia begin to observe things previously withheld from their attention-starved senses. Here, very little happens in terms of plot, but both characters’ ways of seeing are helplessly turned on their heads, and in the stillness of the narrative, the reader also becomes attuned to what Powers so eloquently reveals. It is, as Robert Macfarlane often calls for, a re-enchantment of the natural world.
There are times when Powers crafts paragraphs so perfect the reader simply has to pause and marvel, and critical comparisons to Moby Dick suddenly make sense – here is a worthy successor to Melville’s revelatory wordcraft. At times, though, the story can become bogged down in its own inventiveness, and the text could have benefited from another round of close editing (some carefully-chosen adjectives crop up embarrassingly close to one another). Given how much of Powers’ authorial voice is invested in his protagonists, dropping or merging a character or two wouldn’t have been detrimental. The ending too, feels like it peters out, although by this point the powerful crux of the story has already been reached.
The Overstory’s main argument de-centralises the human experience and instead positions humanity as a parasite species, having evolved within trees, climbed down and quickly – in geological time – established itself as out of control, destroying the valuable custodians of life on earth. It is a criticism that explicitly opens up the complexity and importance of non-human species in a shared finite ecosystem. The Overstory is never ham-fisted in its arguments, and refuses to characterise those whose lifestyles are indebted to the timber industry as anything other than victims of circumstance. And even its enlightened protagonists are proven flawed through their increasingly violent attempts to halt progress.
I don’t think this novel carries a message of hope, not for its characters or for the reader. The story has no happy ending for its protagonists, who all largely become victims to their choices one way or another. Yet the reader is privileged in receiving what the characters have earned without such sacrifice – an invitation to displace and transcend the human perspective, to realise that there are in fact other, grander stories, unfolding apart from our own. This is the singular achievement of this novel that resonates long after the story ends, and it is achieved in ways only the greatest of stories can, through enchantment, empathy, and imagination.
The Overstory is a novel that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Having read it feels as if one who has lived for so long under the canopy has, for the first time, lifted their head above it.