Book review – “The Overstory” by Richard Powers

According to my Goodreads account, I started this book on 4 December. It was the final book I tackled on last year’s Man Booker Shortlist. I have only just finished it. It has taken me well over six weeks. I have read a couple of other books alongside it, mainly because it is currently only available in hardback and at 502 pages it does not slip readily into the handbag. It is also a book that demands to be read slowly, almost at the pace of a tree growing, so it requires something of an investment. If you are put off already, read on, because I must balance that by saying that it is a quite extraordinary book and every hour I have spent with it has been time well spent. It is not a book that rewards being read a few pages at a time, it is best approached with an hour or so in hand.

the overstory img

It is hard to know where to begin to describe it so I will give you the New York Times quote from inside the dustjacket:

“A monumental novel about reimagining our place in the living world.”

After reading it you cannot help but feel that the human race is bent on a suicidal mission, that we will take most of nature down with us and that our tenure as a species on this earth has been wild and reckless and over in the blink of an eye (in evolutionary terms). We’re on the way out I’m afraid. The author’s framework for exploring this is the life of trees. The number and range of trees on the planet was once phenomenal, and humans have systematically destroyed most of them, in the pursuit of so-called ‘progress’, grazing land and space for short-term cash crops, a grossly selfish and short-sighted error of judgement:

“We’re cashing in on a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling.” (p386)

This is the essential powerful message of the book and his method of telling it is also extraordinary. The first part ‘Roots’ is made up of individual chapters about nine individuals, their background, how they came to be at whatever stage of life they are at and, for some, how their families came to be in America. For each individual, trees represent some significant event in their lives. For example, Douglas Pavlicek served in Vietnam and after his plane was hit, he parachuted out and his landing in a banyan tree saved his life.

The second part of the book ‘Trunk’ is the most substantial and details how each of the individuals lives proceed. For example, Neelay, badly paralysed after a childhood fall from a tree becomes a powerful computer games entrepreneur when he invents an extraordinary virtual world. Patricia, an introverted sight and hearing impaired young girl, whose father invested in her a love of nature, becomes an academic but her book about the secret language of trees is derided and she retreats to a reclusive life as a ranger. Many years later, others will agree with her and her thesis becomes fashionable and influential. Olivia, who almost died in part one, becomes an activist, and hooks up with Nicholas, who lost his entire family in part one after they were accidentally poisoned with gas in the family home. The two of them occupy a giant redwood tree in forest threatened by loggers for many months, though ultimately their protest proves futile (this is a metaphor). Many of the characters’ lives intersect, while others remain firmly parallel, for example Dorothy and her quadriplegic husband Ray; it is not clear until close to the end how their story is relevant.

The third part of the book ‘Crown’ is a coming together of all these separate stories, the logical conclusion to the each of the individuals’ stories and the fourth part ‘Seeds’ is about the legacy they leave behind. The end is anti-climactic in some ways, but I think that is the point; for all our ego and self-importance, the mark that humans will leave is pretty insignificant in the long-term. We will simply destroy ourselves. As the book progresses the pace also picks up, as does the switching between the individuals and their stories and the sense is created of humans accelerating towards their decline.

It is hard to do justice to the book in a short review. It is a book which merits deep reading. It is a remarkable concept and remarkable in execution and the writing is sublime, possibly the finest prose I have read in years. In some ways it has left me profoundly depressed about the direction the world is going on – it would be easy to focus on the events of recent years for examples of this but the reality is we have been crafting our own demise for decades, since the Industrial Revolution. Despite all the evidence, we continue to press on with our self-destruction, although there are a few people out there trying desperately to make their voices heard, the author being one of them – I’ve heard him a few times on the radio making the case for paying attention. The non-depressing thing about the book is the realisation that human beings are actually just a miniscule episode in the natural history of this particular planet, and it will prevail, with or without us. This is the ‘overstory’, the picture that is much bigger than us. In this respect our arrogance, particularly that of some of our world leaders, is really rather laughable. What is fascinating is the why, what drives us humans to behave the way we do, and this book sets about trying to explore that.

Though I really loved Anna Burns’ Milkman and felt it was a worthy winner of the Man Booker, I am also rather desperate for a serious realisation of the impact we are having on the world around us, and feel that greater publicity for this book could at least have contributed something to that debate.

One thing is for sure, I will never look at trees the same way again.

Highly recommended, your patience will be rewarded.

If you have read The Overstory, do you agree with my take on it?

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Book review: “Memoirs of a Polar Bear” by Yoko Tawada

This was April’s book in my Facebook reading challenge – I had mistakenly assumed it was a children’s book, as that was our theme for the month. It quickly became apparent to me that it definitely was not! This raises an interesting question in itself, however: why are we enchanted by our children’s books, with their talking animals, cross-species interaction, and animals mixing, seemingly without comment, in the human world, and yet, for our ‘adult’ books, we find this difficult to accept? Don’t get me wrong, I did indeed find this a really challenging read, and I’m still not really sure what I think about it, but it has made me realise that the genre of magical realism, into which I think this book falls, requires a certain openness of mind that we have to be really ready for. I think part of my problem, particularly with the opening section of the book, is that it really wasn’t what I was expecting. I felt somewhat thrown and it inhibited my engagement with the book.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear imgI’ll summarise the basic story of the novel. Part one is the most surreal and the most difficult. It is narrated by the nameless ‘grandmother polar bear’ (grandparent to Knut, star of part three). She has been reared as an attraction in the Soviet Union, by a cruel master, who, among other things, teaches her to stand on her back legs using what we would now regard as unethical methods. I think that by getting the bear to stand like a human the author justifies the morphing of her subject into something less animal. Throughout this part we are asked to suspend our disbelief: the bear escapes Soviet Russia, writes her memoirs, and flees to Germany, where she is ‘protected’ by an unscrupulous agent who simply wants to exploit her because her book has been so popular. The bear visits bookshops, makes human friends and animal enemies (the sea-lion publisher who makes ever more unreasonable demands). It’s all very tricky for us as adult readers.

I think part one is the most overtly political: there is the comment on the dehumanisation of life in the Soviet Union (thus the blurring of the boundaries between the animal and the human?), the bear as outcast (because she is foreign not because she is a bear), the futility of administrative and management practices, and about the impact of climate change – there are frequent references throughout the book to the threat to the species from the disappearance of its natural Arctic habitat. I think as a reader you just have to accept its surreal qualities.

Part two is about the polar bear’s daughter Tosca, who is a circus performer in East Germany. It is narrated by Tosca’s trainer, Barbara (although there is an interesting twist at the end of this part which I won’t spoil), and as such it feels more ‘normal’ to us as readers. Tosca and Barbara develop a very deep connection, which results in extraordinary performances, driving the greedy circus managers to demand ever more dramatic stunts. Her relationship with the polar bear leads Barbara to reflect deeply on the relationship between humans and animals and the author exposes the hypocrisy of the humans, who for example, see polar bears as aggressive and unpredictable whilst prosecuting violent wars themselves. There is also an exploration of gender inequality in this part as the trainer Barbara is as exploited as her animal charge.

knut the polar bear
Knut the polar bear (2006-2011) with his keeper at Berlin Zoo

The final part of the book is about Knut, Tosca’s son, and is based on real events. Tosca says that she gave Knut away (in reality he was rejected by his mother, the inference being that reproduction in captivity drives unnatural behaviours), and he is raised by a human keeper, with whom, once again, he develops a very deep bond. I found this part the most moving and it is definitely more rooted in realism, even though it is narrated by the bear. I have read a little bit about Knut subsequently and it has made my reading of this part of the book more poignant. (Knut died suddenly in Berlin Zoo in 2011, aged only four years, from a brain disease). This part of the book truly challenges our attitude to animals and our use of them in captivity for entertainment, amusement and commercial gain. It also exposes most starkly our attitudes to climate change, habitat loss and species decline: we claim to raise animals in captivity (with all the inherent cruelty that entails) so that we can protect the species, without doing anything about the underlying causes of species decline.

 

Overall, I found this book quite difficult to engage with – I wish I’d known a bit more about it before I started it, but all the reviews I read didn’t really give much away about what the book was about. That is normal for book reviews – no-one wants to give away a spoiler. But there isn’t much to spoil in this book because there is no ‘plot’ as such. I think I could also have engaged with it more if someone had told me to read with a very open mind! That’s a lesson for me as a reader. I have enjoyed this book more in retrospect, as I have reflected on its subject matter and themes, and I am glad I have read it, even if it didn’t always keep me awake at bedtime!

Recommended if you like these themes and can be open to the surreal!

How did you get on with the surreal aspects of this novel?

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