A few years back, Annie Proulx published Barkskins, a vast multi-generational and ecological saga that was enormous in size and scope. I adored the books for its lofty ambition — to chronicle the world’s deforestation from the perspective of two distinct bloodlines — and figured I was done with environmental novels for a while. Then came The Overstory by Powers — shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize, and loved by several of my colleagues — and lo and behold, here I am, another enormous novel about trees behind me.
The Overstory is about our relationship with nature, and our responsibility to the planet and to ourselves. It has a cast of operatic proportions; nine characters share the spotlight as Powers’ unravels a full half century of their involvement with activism and resistance. Despite its scale, The Overstory never feels bloated — it drags a little, maybe, for a hundred pages in its middle, but it’s always engaging thanks in no small part to Powers’ luminous prose — but there were times when I questioned its architecture. The Overstory is structured unlike any novel I’ve read in recent memory; its first section — “Roots” — reads like a collection of short stories, as nine characters are introduced, whose only association is their relationship with trees. “Roots” is a truly magnificent example of Powers’ unparalleled craftsmanship; and it’s here the book truly thrums. It then breaks from that style, and slows down, becomes less revelatory and more perfunctory; “Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seed” sees these nine characters being inextricably drawn together, their lives entangled. The writing is still exemplary, but the narrative energy of “Roots” is lost.
The Overstory is impressive; masterful, even, as Powers weaves an impossible number of threads together. Its scope is fantastic, but its execution, in my view, is uneven. But if I could reread “Roots” again, for the first time, I would — it’s exceptional storytelling.