Under the greenwood tree

A review of Michael Christie's Greenwood

Hi! I’m Hannah James, journalist, writer and editor, and this is where I review nature books, and think about nature-related topics out loud. Thanks for reading!

Connecting to nature

My friend group couldn’t squeeze in our traditional Christmas in July weekend in the Blue Mountains until the end of August this year, and so, even though it had snowed the weekend before, it felt much too warm for a Christmas celebration. It was perfect walking and wildflower-spotting weather, though. Walks with friends are always more chatty than contemplative, but the sight of the vastness of the Jamison Valley opening out in front of you never fails to bring a moment of awe.

What I’ve been reading

A delicious investigation into the colour periwinkle, courtesy of The Paris Review.

The New Yorker had a discussion of reading Derek Jarman, something I’m planning to do ASAP.

I know, because John Fowles taught me, that wilderness does not exist to heal us - yet it does, so I can forgive NY Times journo Nick Kristoff for using it to do just that.

My nature book this week was Greenwood by Michael Christie. It’s a vast and sprawling tree-themed novel that’s irresistibly reminiscent of another vast and sprawling tree-themed novel, The Overstory by Richard Powers. Similarly, it encompasses activism, families, roots, climatic destruction, and the sometimes surprising connections between all these - but it’s quite a different novel. Greenwood is structured like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, except here the nested structure (which starts in 2038 and goes back in time to 2008, 1974, 1934 and 1908, and then moves forward again to finish each story, ending back in 2038) reminds the reader of the rings of a tree. And quite deliberately so - I have an advance reading copy, which is not as pretty as the final copy, but even this has tree rings printed on the page edges (something I have just learned is called fore-edge printing).

One of the epigraphs is from John Fowles’s The Tree, which I wrote about here. (This book seems to be a key text for a lot of nature writers!) I quoted the same sentence as Christie does in his epigraph, in fact:

“Trees warp time, or rather create a variety of times: here dense and abrupt, there calm and sinuous.”

The outermost ring of story is the 2038-set tale of Jake Greenwood, an over-qualified, underpaid guide on a Canadian island that contains one of the world’s last remaining stands of old-growth forest. Most trees have succumbed to the Great Withering - fungal infections and insect attacks - and their loss has also brought on rib retch, a new and deadly form of tuberculosis that attacks all but the rich, who can afford to retreat to climate-controlled towers, away from the dust-filled air. It’s worth persisting through the slightly self-conscious exposition that often dogs the opening chapters of speculative fiction (although Greenwood’s is a painfully plausible scenario: natural disasters followed by economic collapse). The later stories move back in time, deeper into Jake’s family history, giving much more depth and gradually unveiling the mystery at the heart of Jake’s existence. It’s perhaps invidious to compare, but I did find Powers’s plot more assured and its characters more richly drawn than Christie’s. But Greenwood is still narratively satisfying, threaded through with some lovely language, and presents a horrifyingly convincing near-term future of ecological and humanitarian crisis that we still - just - have time to avert.

Greenwood was my 79th book for 2020. In the past two weeks I’ve also read:

  1. Nardi Simpson, Song of the Crocodile

  2. Emma Forrest, Royals

  3. Laura Jean McKay, The Animals in that Country

  4. Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary

Might I also direct you to Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss? I read an advance proof earlier this year and it’s now been published. Full disclosure, I’ve commissioned Meg to write articles for me at every magazine where I’ve had that power. She’s a lovely, lightly humorous writer (and a lovely, deeply humorous person!) but with this book she’s stepped into something completely different from her previous lighthearted memoirs. Her protagonist is troubled and compelling in a way that rings so true. I have a goldfish brain (which is why I started this newsletter - I wanted to remember the books I read!) and I read Sorrow and Bliss all the way back in February, yet I’m STILL thinking about the story and wondering about the characters. (I’ve read that S&B has been compared to Fleabag and, groan, so obvious - but so true!) With no in-person events, launching a book is beyond hard right now for authors, so please buy and read and love Meg’s. It’s worth your time, I promise.

Until next time!