From a tree to a house; from the whole of the United States to a single New Jersey town; from the mastery of the natural world to being mastered by it; from protection to being left unprotected. Richard Powers’s The Overstory and Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, which I read consecutively, kept resonating with each other in interesting ways. This could be pretty confusing, because both novels want to resonate within themselves as well. Kingsolver’s novel flips between a contemporary family in a financial crisis whose house is literally cracking around them, to a nineteenth-century science teacher who’s fighting to be allowed to teach Darwin in high school and becomes fascinated by his next-door neighbour, the botanist Mary Treat. The Overstory is several levels more ambitious, introducing the reader to no fewer than nine characters in its first hundred pages, then spending the rest of the book bringing them all together as almost all of them fight to save the last remnants of the US’s ancient forests.
Both novels have an overriding moral message. Kingsolver addresses hers to individuals, suggesting that clinging onto old certainties and old places is a waste of time. Echoing the Darwinian science so fiercely advocated by her nineteenth-century hero, Thatcher Greenwood, she suggests that we must adapt to survive; that the millennial generation is much better equipped than their parents to deal with impending economic and environmental crisis. This is tidily laid out in her set of central contemporary characters. Nick, the grandfather, is literally falling apart as he insists on clinging to a bygone time when white elite men were on top, eating up the radio rants of a Trump-esque presidential candidate referred to only as as the ‘Bullhorn’. Willa, the mother, is palpably out of her depth for most of the novel, trying to patch up her house and her finances rather than starting afresh. Her two children, Zeke and Tig, provide case studies of what and what not to do. Zeke has ‘done everything right’, graduating from Harvard and pursuing a career in economics, but still finds himself a broke single father dependent on wider family assistance. Tig has always been a worry, dropping out of college and running off to Cuba, but now gives Willa invaluable help, working in a local restaurant and taking care of her brother’s baby, Dusty, on the side. Willa repeatedly marvels at her daughter’s practical skills: the way she acquires baby clothes through a network of friends, her easy ability to cook and freeze baby food to save money. Tig, she thinks, is the person best equipped to make a success of the new world they find themselves in.
In contrast, The Overstory asks why we need to tell stories about human relationships to keep the reader’s attention, when the natural world has a story of its own that is far older and more important. The novel is frustrated by humans’ inability to recognise the history of trees, and the ways in which they interact and talk to each other (a persistent theme in 2018/19 novels and memoirs!) If Unsheltered is pessimistic, The Overstory is apocalyptic, suggesting that we don’t want humans to adapt and survive; for the good of the planet, it would be better if they all died off as quickly as possible. Yet The Overstory undercuts its own driving themes by telling us a number of very human stories. The book begins with what feels like nine miniature novels, introducing us to each of the central characters, and then interweaves these stories together with incredible skill. Structurally, The Overstory is fragmented but still coherent, especially as its different threads (or ‘rings’, as the book would have it, playing off rings in a tree trunk) wrap closer and closer around each other as it reaches its climax.
Unsheltered’s dual narratives, on the other hand, can never actually meet, however much they might talk to each other, and however much research Willa does about Thatcher Greenwood and Mary Treat in the present day. This makes it feel more like two novels in one, and I found that this was a consistent distraction. The nineteenth-century narrative is actually accomplished and immersive, with more than a touch of George Eliot, but I’d just be getting into its deliberate slowness when I was whisked back to the modern-day plot, which is superficially speedier. Kingsolver also doesn’t achieve the same kind of subtlety as Powers when it comes to moralising. There’s a great scene early in the novel when Willa’s husband, father-in-law and children are all so invested in being ‘right’ that they talk over her, a family dinner that portrays all the characters as flawed and somewhat egotistic. However, this kind of nuance is abandoned in the final chapters, when Tig’s role becomes didactic as she lectures her mother on how life has to be now. Nice as it is to see a positive portrayal of millennials, I’d have preferred a bit more intergenerational exchange between mother and daughter. Tig might have cracked how to live sustainably, but she spends most of her time performing physical and emotional labour of the kind Willa’s generation stood up against – child care, care of her elderly grandfather, cooking, and house maintenance. Is this really a brave new world, or a sad indictment of the fact that economic hardship tends to stifle other kinds of rebellion?
Finally, Unsheltered suggests that we have to let go of our attachment to place to thrive in a landscape that is constantly changing, whereas The Overstory sees its characters trying to defend ancient strongholds at all cost. Personally, I felt more convinced by The Overstory’s recognition of what we lose when we lose environments that have taken such time and effort to build than Unsheltered’s suggestion that it would be better for us not to cling to such shelters so we can grow as people. Nevertheless, these are both massive, engrossing and important books, and I suggest that everybody reads them both. Just perhaps not one after the other.