The Overstory by Richard Powers


I had heard great things about Richard Powers’ latest novel, The Overstory, which last year featured on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize, and was intrigued by the premise of this sprawling novel about life and the natural world.

Nicholas Hoel is the first of nine key characters that we meet in this novel, where we learn about the history of the Hoel family and the significance that a chestnut tree has in their lives. From generation to generation, the Hoel family photograph this tree on a regular basis, culminating in a century’s worth of photograph portraits documenting the existence of a tree that has remained present throughout the many trials the family face. This is just one of the stories that we discover in the opening section of the novel, titled ‘Roots’, which provides the background on Nicholas Hoel and eight other people, all with very different, and fascinating, stories to tell. I enjoyed this part of the book, and found each individual story to be equally compelling, filled with drama and intrigue, as we get an in depth look into these various lives, their differences, and the way in which they each connect with the natural world around them. From this we move onto various other parts, comprising the ‘Trunk’ ‘Crown’ and ‘Seeds’ as we follow these characters on their respective journeys, and see how the lives of these strangers become intertwined.

From the opening pages I became immersed in the lives of these characters and found the opening part in which their roots were laid down to be of particular interest. The overall structure itself was an intriguing one, and I liked the use of the various parts of a tree and its reflection on the developing lives of the characters. The first part is like a collection of short stories, and there was a lot to discover here that had me gripped and eager to see how the story would play out. At over 600 pages, this is by no means a quick read, and I did find the later sections of the book a little more difficult to get through as the pacing was a little slower after the detail of the events that were packed into the opening section. That said I thought that this was a well written story which explores a broad range of interesting themes including the history of migration in America, advancements in research, and activism. There are some wonderful passages of writing which highlight the trees and the natural world that provides a backdrop for this story which spans centuries as the individual threads of this tale are woven together.

The Overstory is an intriguing read with a fascinating cast of characters in which we see the world around them change through the passing of time. Whilst I did take a while to finish reading this book I think it is a good read for anyone who enjoys multiple narrative threads and family sagas developing through time.

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