Like the deepest roots of the greatest tree, the lives of the characters in ‘The Overstory’ become entwined and entangled; brought together by a shared love of trees and the sense of wonder they bring and the innate sense of magnificence and magic they emanate. ‘The Overstory’ is deeply poetic exploration of not just a group of random strangers whose lives intersect due to a love of all things arboreal, but also how deeply-connected trees are not just with earth but also our own sense of consciousness; humans and trees may have separated evolutionary half a billion years ago, but their roots are deeply buried within us and in losing them we risk losing part of ourselves.
The book begins as a series of vignettes, following the lives of various people; an engineer from China, an immigrant from Norway who settles on a mid-Western farm, a neuro-divergent scientist with an innate love for nature. Gradually the lives of the characters and their off-spring branch out and scatter like leaves from a tree across America; blowing here and there, occasionally taking route, yet brought together by a connection-albeit subconscious and for many long dormant-with the world around them. Often this apotheosis is only reached after they experience irremediable change or loss; Olivia is resurrected from their former selfishness and self-indulgence to a sense of serenity which she emanates and by which, like pollen being captured in the wind, she is able to draw in the lonely and lachrymose descendent of Hoel, whose planting of the chestnut tree kicks the novel off. Or there is the man whose paralysis not only allows him to see the world afresh, to marvel at the mundane and develop a sense of quietude at even the most quotidian acts of nature, or
Powers is able to imbue the world of ‘The Overstory’ with a sense of poetry;
“Green swirls spread through Astor place. Just a lime splash at first, against the grey pavement. The another splash, this one avocado. Adam stands at a window, gazing down a dozen stories. Cars travelling down the four skewed streets pull green streaks into the irregular intersection. In another moment, a third pool-olive-spreads in great Pollock stripes across the concrete canvas”
However, the greatest triumph which Powers is able to achieve is how fully realised the world he creates us, how deeply he brings the reader into the lives of his characters and the trees they love and how magnificently he is able to achieve the dream of Neelay, who acts as a stand-in for the author and whose artificial reality game which draws in millions but acts as a poor substitute for the life it is trying to mimic, a world which vast kaleidoscope can only be ever rendered via the sensitive pen of an artist such as Powers rather than monotone reality of Neelay’s games; a fact which Neelay realises too late-how can he truly claim to have created a world when he cannot even capture the flowering of a tree?