Book Review: The Overstory by Richard Powers

Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker prize, The Overstory stands apart from most other contemporary novels. The first surprise is that it doesn’t centre around people and their problems; the second that it is fundamentally evangelistic. By that I don’t mean that it is a Christian book (far from it, in fact), rather that it aims to convict readers and change their thinking and lives. The message that it proclaims on every page are that trees are complex “social beings with memory and agency” (1) , which deserve our reverence.
It might be a shock to you to learn that trees communicate with each other. It certainly was to me, and if I hadn’t stumbled upon this fact a couple of months ago when turning on the radio (you can hear about it here) , I might have dismissed The Overstory as fictional whimsy. But this, or at least the bare bones of it is genuine science. The root systems of trees in forests send messages to each other, appearing to collaborate and share resources. Above the ground, trees learn to recognise danger and then to anticipate it. Or maybe something like that – it’s hard to write about this without using anthropomorphic language.
But the trees aren’t the main characters in The Overstory, though they are its point. Instead the book begins with eight separate stories, revealing to us nine characters who have significant relationships with trees. One inherits a book of photos of the same chestnut tree, taken a month apart over decades. Another has a father who teaches her everyday about the forest. Another has his life saved when he falls from an aeroplane onto a banyan tree. Yet another hears ancient voices telling her to rescue trees. These lives become gradually intertwined into a narrative centred on eco-activism, a seemingly doomed fight to save ancient US woodland.
The book is long. 500 pages of unremitting present tense action and powerful description. I was taken with it and found it hard to put down, but ultimately it is frustrating. Powers’ aim “to resurrect a very old form of tree consciousness, a religion of attention and accommodation, a pantheism of sorts”(2) failed to convince me stylistically as well as philosophically. There is no debate or nuance in this book, despite the careful sentences, colourful vocabulary and genuinely interesting ideas. All the activists are good, all those who would chop down trees bad. For fiction to work, above all else characters need to be credible and complex, but these were not.
So why did has it done so well? I think because it speaks into our world dominated by dismal evolutionary materialism, with a call to awe and purposeful action focused on a massively important theme. Like today’s veganism and identity politics, it offers something which looks like immediate virtue but is an ultimate dead-end. Nature can lower the blood pressure, but it can’t teach us right from wrong. Whilst pantheism might look noble, it comes close to nihilism; human life matters little from the perspective of a tree.
There is a challenge for Christians here then. Are we prepared to honour the creator of trees by truly caring for His complex, beautiful creation? More than others we should be filled with wonder at nature (Psalm 8), as it testifies to an even greater beauty. More than others we should be ready to reduce our consumption so that we steward God’s resources for the good of all, for we know of His love for all he has made (Psalm 145).

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Sarah Allen is a wife, mother, student and teacher. She lives in Huddersfield with husband, a decreasing number of children and her dog.

1.Los Angeles Review of Books, Interview with Robert Powers!