> Skip to content
About the book
  • Published: 16 April 2019
  • ISBN: 9781784708245
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 640
  • RRP: $26.00

The Overstory

Winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Moving through America’s history and its landscape, this is a wondrous, exhilarating novel about nine strangers brought together by an unfolding natural catastrophe.

A wondrous, exhilarating novel about nine strangers brought together by an unfolding natural catastrophe

‘The best novel ever written about trees, and really, just one of the best novels, period’
Ann Patchett
An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. An Air Force crewmember in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan.

This is the story of these and five other strangers, each summoned in different ways by the natural world, who are brought together in a last stand to save it from catastrophe.

‘Dazzlingly written’
Robert Macfarlane, bestselling author of Underland
Barbara Kingsolver, New York Times

‘It’s a masterpiece’
Tim Winton

‘It’s not possible for Powers to write an uninteresting book’
Margaret Atwood

‘An astonishing performance’
Benjamin Markovits, Guardian

  • Pub date: 16 April 2019
  • ISBN: 9781784708245
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 640
  • RRP: $26.00

About the Author

Richard Powers

Richard Powers is the author of twelve novels, including Orfeo (which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize), The Echo Maker, The Time of Our Singing, Galatea 2.2 and Plowing the Dark. He is the recipient of a MacArthur grant and the National Book Award, and has been a Pulitzer Prize and four-time NBCC finalist. He lives in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Also by Richard Powers

See all

Praise for The Overstory

“Autumn makes me think of leaves, which makes me think of trees, which makes me think of The Overstory, the best novel ever written about trees, and really, just one of the best novels, period.”

Ann Patchett

“An extraordinary novel … It’s an astonishing performance …He’s incredibly good at describing trees, at turning the science into poetry …The book is full of ideas … Like Moby-Dick, The Overstory leaves you with a slightly adjusted frame of reference … Some of what was happening to his characters passed into my conscience, like alcohol into the bloodstream, and left a feeling behind of grief or guilt, even after I put it down. Which is one test of the quality of a novel.”

Ben Markovits, Guardian

“The time is ripe for a big novel that tells us as much about trees as Moby-Dick does about whales … The Overstory is that novel and it is very nearly a masterpiece ... The encyclopaedic powers of Powers extend from the sciences to the literary classics. On almost every page of The Overstory you will find sentences that combine precision and vision. You will learn new facts about trees ... [An] exhilarating read.”

The Times

“[The Overstory] whirls together so many characters, so much research and such a jostle of intersecting ideas that, at times, it feels like a landbound companion to Moby-Dick’s digressional and obsessive whale tale ... One of the most thoughtful and involving novels I’ve read for years ... This long book is astonishingly light on its feet, and its borrowings from real research are conducted with verve ... The propulsive style and the enthusiastic reverence of Powers’s writing about nature keep it whizzing through any amount of linked observations on literary criticism, political science and statistical analysis. It’s an extraordinary novel, alert to the large ideas and humanely generous to the small ones; in an age of cramped autofictions and self-scrutinising miniatures, it blossoms.”

Tim Martin, Daily Telegraph

“Big brainy books bristling with formidable versatility have been Powers’s speciality since he launched his highly idiosyncratic fictional career ... The Overstory is a hugely ambitious eco-fable ... An immense and intense homage to the arboreal world, the book is alive with riveting data, cogent reasoning and urgent argument ... [Pages] teem with knowledge and gleam with aesthetic appeal. Angry energy pulses through scenes ... Valiant.”

Peter Kemp, Sunday Times

“No less a writer than Margaret Atwood has said of Richard Powers that “it’s not possible for him to write an uninteresting book”. On the evidence of The Overstory, he is continuing a remarkable run … This is a mighty, at times even monolithic, work that combines the multi-narrative approach of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas with a paean to the grandeur and wonder of trees that elegantly sidesteps pretension and overambition. Early comparisons to Moby-Dick are unfairly lofty, but this fine book can stand on its own … Written with a freshness that belies the well-worn subject matter … As befits a book that spans centuries, there is a richness and allusiveness to the prose that reaches back as far as Thoreau’s Walden, and Emerson is an acknowledged touchstone. The Overstory is high-minded but never precious … [A] majestic redwood of a novel … It is fitting that it ends with a message of hope. As with Larkin, a belief that humanity is capable of redeeming itself and beginning “afresh, afresh, afresh”.”


“I have thought about The Overstory ever since reading it last year… For me, what was so radical and exciting about this novel was the fact that the trees are probably more important than the human beings who trundle around them causing chaos. It was the first “eco-lit” novel I’ve read that made me stop and truly realise how sophisticated trees are, how magisterially brilliant. And, in a world where finally, collectively, we are acknowledging the threat of climate crisis, it reminded me of how important they are to the planet’s survival”

Jessie Burton, Guardian

“His monumental novel The Overstory accomplishes what few living writers from either camp, art or science, could attempt … The Overstory is a delightfully choreographed, ultimately breathtaking hoodwink … The opener is a gorgeous family saga with the texture of a Ken Burns documentary … we’re in the hands of Richard Powers, winner of a genius grant, a storyteller of such grand scope that Margaret Atwood was moved to ask: “If Powers were an American writer of the 19th century, which writer would he be? He’d probably be the Herman Melville of Moby Dick.” His picture really is that big … Trees will bring these small lives together into large acts of war, love, loyalty and betrayal … The descriptions of this deeply animate place, including a thunderstorm as experienced from 300 feet up, stand with any prose I’ve ever read … The science in this novel ranges from fun fact to mind-blowing, brought to us by characters … who are sweet or funny or maddening in all the relatable ways … This is a gigantic fable of genuine truths held together by a connective tissue of tender exchange between fictional friend, lovers, parents and children.”

Barbara Kingsolver, New York Times Book Review

“Richard Powers has a mighty purpose for The Overstory … He is absolutely serious. He wants to pull down “the sense of exceptionalism we humans carry around inside us” … Epically ambitious. In the face of climate change, Powers scorns fiction that restricts itself to individual human stories, “private hopes, fears and desires”. His fiction aims to be nothing less than environmental … He writes such good prose … Powers has to be admired for the sheer scale of this creation and the passion he has poured into it.”

David Sexton, Evening Standard

“The Great American Novel has been written many times. From Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) to Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), American authors have produced works of sweeping grandeur that attempt to capture a people at a point in history. Yet these national epics have — you might conclude after reading The Overstory — failed to see the wood for the trees. … Richard Powers’ 12th novel is a rare specimen: a Great American Eco-Novel … Yet the literary greats that really inform Powers’ thinking and writing are the Transcendentalists Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, as well as the metaphysical poets … But the great literary tap root that grounds his sprawling novel is Ovid’s The Metamorphoses … The great fork that took us away from our natural environment and other living things, that led us to a place where we have unthinkingly destroyed forest after forest and species after species must be challenged, argues Powers, and challenged through stories. “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind,” he writes. “The only thing that can do that is a good story.” This is a good story. It will change the way you look at trees.”

Financial Times

“Renews romanticism for the contemporary age; making space for the sentimental to breathe freely again, and challenging us not to be afraid to care … Powers’s mission is urgent: not only are we living through an age where science is rewriting what comprises consciousness, but we are simultaneously exploiting non-human life to an unprecedented extent … Powers’s place as one of the few established writers longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize is well deserved. ... And if Powers himself was a tree, it would surely be a mature oak, for The Overstory displays the kind of abundant creativity that restores faith in human endeavour.”

New Statesman

“[A] rich literary canopy … Powers, one of a remarkable generation of polymathic American novelists including William T. Vollmann and the late David Foster Wallace, has produced a brilliant encyclopaedic [novel] … A rich entanglement of discourses, disciplines, data, characters and styles, mirroring the most biodiverse ecosystem.”

Times Literary Supplement

“In his extraordinary 12th novel, Powers follows nine characters whose lives are bound up with the beauty, history, science, mythos and heedless destruction of trees … Passionately ecological in its themes, the novel doesn’t hammer at them. The green message becomes a natural element borne eloquently through the narrative.”

Mail on Sunday

“This eco-epic has affected me as no novel has for many years … The book brings to life the greatest problems of our time – climate change and biodiversity collapse – and gets under the skin in a way that just reading about the science doesn’t always manage … The structure of the book, meshing and connecting and interweaving, is explicitly and implicitly about ecology. But as rich and compelling as the human lives are, the trees are the stars. Powers conveys wonder about the natural world and an extraordinary depth of ecological insight: it’s this which makes the novel so powerful … The Overstory has already been compared to Moby Dick. It is to trees what Herman Melville’s epic is to whales in that it changes our understanding of our relationship to a natural resource … The Overstory is a profound work … This is the first time I’ve read a novel that manages to celebrate and warn about the natural world in such a compelling and affecting way. It’s changed the way I look at trees, and I loved trees to begin with. We are being engulfed by an ecological crisis of our own making, which gives this book an urgency you should not resist.”

New Scientist

“A story about trees, nature and people, and the complicated relationships that hold the world together. Layered and intricate, it’s a wonderful epic … It’s a beautiful, brilliant and involving book, with a vital message at its heart.”


“Operatic … a novel devoted to “reviving that dead metaphor at the heart of the word bewilderment”.”

Wall Street Journal

“It can change the way you think about trees slightly, and it certainly did for me.”

Jessie Burton, author of 'The Muse'

“The Overstory is a visionary, accessible legend for the planet that owns us, its exaltation and its peril, a remarkable achievement by a great writer.”

Thomas McGuane

“This book is beyond special. Richard Powers manages to turn trees into vivid and engaging characters, something that indigenous people have done for eons but that modern literature has rarely if ever even attempted. It’s not just a completely absorbing, even overwhelming book; it’s a kind of breakthrough in the ways we think about and understand the world around us, at a moment when that is desperately needed.”

Bill McKibben

“A magnificent saga of lives aligned with the marvels of trees, the intricacy and bounty of forests, and their catastrophic destruction under the onslaught of humanity’s ever-increasing population … A virtuoso at parallel narratives ... gripping… Powers’ sylvan tour de force is alive with gorgeous descriptions; continually surprising, often heartbreaking characters; complex suspense; unflinching scrutiny of pain; celebration of creativity and connection; and informed and expressive awe over the planet’s life force and its countless and miraculous manifestations … [A] profound and symphonic novel.”

Booklist (starred review)

“Here is a big, brave, ambitious novel… The writing is breathtaking, the message is devastating. This book will fill you with wonder.”

Saga Magazine

“Formidably forks through time and place as it considers how best to care for our world.”

i paper

“An astonishingly rich book. Rich in ideas and imagination. Rich in drama, wisdom and truly illuminating facts about trees.”

Caught by the River

“There is a lot to learn from this novel.”

The Skinny

“Moby Dick for trees.”

John Mullan

“Alert to the large ideas and generous to the small ones; in an age of cramped autofictions and self-scrutinising miniatures, it blossoms.”

Daily Telegraph

“Brilliant at the futility of human action.”

Sarah Crompton

“A masterpiece of operatic proportions … What Powers means to explore is a sense of how we become who we are, individually and collectively, and our responsibility to the planet and to ourselves … A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.”


“His masterpiece.”


“You will careen through this book. The prose is driven. You don’t really get to draw breath … The writing is steel-edged, laser-sharp when Richard Powers wants it to be. When he sets out to nail meaning, it’s done. There are sentences you return to and wonder at.”

Irish Times

“This walk through the woods via words is a passionate paean to the natural world that prompts us to appreciate afresh our place on the planet.”

i news

“[I]t’s huge, it’s exciting, it’s wondrous … This really deserves to be read.”


“The Overstory is a book you learn from.”


“Dazzlingly written… Among the best novels I’ve read this decade… Despite its deep-time perspective, it could hardly be more of-the-moment”

Robert Macfarlane, Guardian

“A beautiful novel about humans reconnecting with nature in a fascinatingly, inventive world with colourful, rich characters, it will rekindle your love for nature”

Asian Voice

Related titles