Man Booker 2018 Review #5: ‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers – A change is gonna come

When I was doing my early investigating into this year’s shortlisters, ‘The Overstory’ was consistently the hardest for anyone to describe. “It’s about trees,” they all said, with an almost audible sigh of defeat.

Well, it is about trees. But, it’s also about so much more than trees.

We begin with several independent stories focusing on separate people living in the states. Each begins in the character’s childhood, or sometimes with the lives of their parents, and all come to be defined by a brush with the arboreal.

One character climbs a tree after getting into trouble, and becomes paralysed after falling out. Another becomes obsessed with photographing the family’s proud chestnut year after year. One meets his wife by participating in an amateur dramatics production of Macbeth, in which he plays a tree of Birnam Wood.

But as the book continues, each story spirals slowly into its fellows, creating a beautifully constructed novel.

Roots and seeds

The book is sectioned off into parts named after the roots, trunk and seeds of a tree. Not surprisingly this represents our journey through the lives of each person – their roots are their childhood, and their seeds are their legacy.

As you move through the novel you start to realise just how cleverly it is structured. The entire book is designed to replicate the structure of a tree, or forest; as the stories start to link together, you are reminded of the branches and roots of a tree. As one couple, who are meant to be together, collide, they join hands as roots seek each other out underground. At one point, the future splits off into two separate branches, and one character’s vital decision divides into two different realities.

Structurally, ‘The Overstory’ is quite awe-inspiringly complex and is worthy of admiration for this alone. The sense of an inevitable momentum driving towards the story’s emotional conclusion is powerful and effective, giving you the odd sensation that you’re growing slowly upwards inside the tree of the book.

A good story to change your mind

As one of the characters repeats often during the novel: “the best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

Reading ‘The Overstory’ did change my mind.

Through connecting many individual lives – with all their tragedy, love, loss and joy – with trees bestows them with an emotional significance that they’ve never really had for me before. The next time I see a chestnut, I will think of Ray and Dorothy, or of Nicholas Hoel.

But there’s also quite an effective rational case put forward for the rescuing of trees. This comes through the voice of Patty, a botanist who publishes a quickly and brutally refuted paper about how trees communicate with each other. Later, her life’s work becomes about saving trees because of their immense potential to help mankind through yet-undiscovered medicines and other uses.

By the end of the novel I had been given a newfound appreciation for trees and woods. Their story moved me, and I will genuinely never look at them the same way again. For a novel, that it an extremely impressive feat.

So can it take the prize? One day before the announcement and it is still the bookie’s favourite, after having been much hyped throughout the nomination stage.

I think The Overstory could very easily win this year’s Man Booker. Much as I adore an underdog, I can’t help but feel that in this case the hype was warranted. Whilst it didn’t shake me to my core the way that some novels have, it’s a lyrical, gorgeous, emotive read that I am sure has changed my outlook.

You can’t really ask for much more than that.

Who is putting bets on for tomorrow??

Buy a copy of The Overstory on my Amazon affiliate link.

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