This is a very good novel about trees. It sticks to its subject a little too on the nose at times, meaning every once in awhile when it comes back to trees, it feels a little forced, but for the most part, that’s what a novel is.
I went into the novel with a few bits of prior knowlege: a) it’s about trees b) Richard Powers tends to write what I call scientific fiction, which is related to science fiction in that it levies in concepts but puts them to literary use (this in mind would be similar to how the novel The Known World by Liz Moore that people around here really liked last year used AI and learning computing in hers. The novel starts with what feels like several unconnected stories about Americans/American immigrants in various decades of the late 1800s and 1900s and the ways in which tree function in meaningful ways in their lives. Some are very obvious or surface, such a boy whose father transplanted a black chestnut to the midwest and then took monthly pictures of the tree for years before his sons and grandsons took over. Another involves a Chinese immigrant growing a mulberry tree in order to harvest silk. Another involves the son of a Indian immigrant in the 80s developing early gaming technology. And the list goes on. Because I wasn’t sure what the novel’s structure was going to be for a long time, these felt like a series of vignettes, and so when certain of them only briefly mentioned trees I was beginning to become a little dubious of the novel.
But as the novel circled back and looped the storylines over one another and I began to realize these characters were actually going to interact, it started functioning more clearly as a novel. The lens is the focus on trees, which again might sound arbitrary or even forced, but then as I thought about my own relationship with trees (and I imagine if you did the same), I did realize that trees do play a pretty regular role in stories from my life. For me, it’s mostly climbing them in and around my childhood backyard. Even now, we just moved to a house that for a relatively small yard has several (ten or so) tall oak trees that dump their reproductive gunk all over my yard and roof, clogging up my gutters, etc etc. So the novel started taking more shape and the result is something that is very good, if it does get bogged down for a few moments throughout.