Michael Christie’s intricately-constructed eco-novel dramatizes a multi-generational saga dominated by trees.
Michael Christie’s second novel is like a well-built house, with solid sections, precisely fitted together – so it is perhaps not surprising to discover the author, a former carpenter, lives in a house he built with his own hands. The structure of a novel is architectural, indeed cathedral-like in complexity (and to echo this, the grove at the heart of the novel – a priceless remnant of old growth redwood on a remote island off the coast of Vancouver – is referred to as the ‘Cathedral’). Walter Benjamin in The Storyteller suggested that they are three essential phases to the construction of a piece of writing: ‘a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven.’ Certainly, we can see evidence of the latter two in this finely fashioned, and beautifully-woven novel. Adopting a technique of biomimicry, Greenwood is structured like the rings of a tree. The outer ring is the framing narrative set in an eco-apocalyptic 2038 in which a biocatastrophe known as the ‘Withering’ as decimated the tree population of the planet, resulting in toxic dust-storms, climate refugees, and a general breakdown of society, which only the super-rich can escape the consequences of. Elite eco-tourists visit some of the only remaining redwoods to have survived the catastrophe on the semi-fictional ‘Greenwood Island’, (loosely based on Galiano Island, off the coast of British Colombia, where the author lives with his family in his handmade wooden house). An over-qualified guide forced to suck up to the corporate dollar due to her crushing student debt, Jacinda (or ‘Jake’) Greenwood discovers she may be descended from the original owner of the island, the timber tycoon, Harris Greewood, just as the world around her is collapsing. Within this frame there are sections set in 2008, 1974, 1934, and 1908, which chart the unusual providence of Jacinda’s possible ancestor and the fate of her descendants (not so much a family tree, as a ‘forest’, as Jake eventually reflects – each independent, but connected to and supporting the other members of the ‘fictional’ construction of the family). Each of these sections is well-researched and well-dramatised, although the longest – set in the dust bowl of the post-crash Thirties – is the most impressive and comprehensively realised. This is really the heartwood of the novel, or perhaps that should be the xylem, the outer ring of a tree, just below the bark, where the nutrient-filled sap flows, drawing water and minerals up from the roots to feed the growth of the tree. The double-portrait of the ill-starred brothers – Harris and Everett – and their inner circle provides the ‘engine’ of the plot, and it is Hardyesque in its scope and fatalism. Outside of this, the sections seem, at times, a little wooden – solidly hewn, yes, but lacking in some vital spark. It is interesting but perhaps unfair to compare Christie’s substantial endeavour with Richard Power’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Overstory. Both display a profound knowledge of tree’s – with Christie as a worker of wood, perhaps having the edge. But Greenwood lacks the breathtaking scope and vision of Power’s novel, which transcends the mere mimetic in its daring shift into the non-anthropocentric. Whileas Christie’s prose always stays on the surface, the material – depicted in a solid, convincing way, without a doubt, but never transcending itself. Nevertheless, the plight of the characters, who suffer the vicissitudes of fate, is affecting at times. And there are moments of rare poetry, notably when a cyclone sucks ten thousand books out of a hobo library, up into the air, making a sound like ‘birds’. And the concentric structure of the novel shows a poetic touch to. At one point a dying man realises time ‘is not an arrow. Neither is it a road. It goes in no particular direction. It simply accumulates—in the body, in the world—like wood does. Layer upon layer. Light then dark. Each one dependent upon the last. Each year impossible without the one preceding it. Each triumph and each disaster written forever in its own structure.’ Christie seems to be implying that the fates of each of the characters is written into their nature. What that suggests in a wider sense of the human condition, and our problematic relationship with nature, it is hard to say. There is certainly a profound reverence for trees here, but also a pessimism about our collective fate, and treatment of the planet and each other. This is just realism, you may add – but where does it leave the reader? Greenwood is an ambitious ecological novel, but one that seems to lack a clear message. Perhaps Christie wishes for the reader to make of the generational tale of dysfunctional lives what they will. We are left staring at the wonder of the forest of interconnected lives who share this small, vulnerable ball of dirt we call home. If the novel ‘achieves’ anything it must this – the simple, but powerful, act of attention and appreciation.
Kevan Manwaring, 10 Mar. 21