Review by Geoff Love
W. W. Norton and Co
Read December 2021
If you enjoyed Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize winning book The Overstory, you are in for a big treat with Bewilderment. I don’t happen to share some of the accolades for Overstory (Barack Obama: “It changed how I thought about the Earth and our place in it”; Ann Patchett: “The best novel ever written about trees, and really, just one of the best novels ever”). It is a sweeping and overwhelming book, but it took me weeks to read. I finished Bewilderment in days. It’s one of those books you don’t just read; you savour it like a sunset or beautiful tree.
The two books share a unique and thoughtful take on nature and the changing world around us. They also share Powers’ different, sometimes disjointed, writing style. But if Overstory is epic in nature, Bewilderment is almost laser-like in its focus. The essential question that his new book and lead characters ask is “what are we doing to our children?”
Bewilderment has three moving story lines in one very readable and powerful book. It’s mostly about a 10-year old boy who is “on the spectrum,” dealing with his mother’s recent death and seeking an explanation for a world that is clearly “in love with its own destruction.” The “middle story” is about a widowed father struggling with single parenthood, his own loss of the love of his life (a life-long advocate and campaigner for nature) and his son’s struggles, awkwardness and sensitivity to the collapse of the natural world that he sees around him. The “big story” is about Robin’s dad (a young astrobiologist) and his search for life on other planets, many light years away.
It’s also a book about artificial intelligence, the possibility of other worlds/other forms of life and an experimental therapy program that challenges the idea of where one person’s consciousness ends and another’s begins. Robin, the 10-year old, is a younger Greta Thunberg who has said “…we autistic are the normal ones and the rest of the people are pretty strange. They keep saying that climate change is an existential threat...and yet they all just carry on like before.” Robin’s plea in a banner he creates to support continued funding for his dad’s other worldly explorations is pure and simple “May all beings be free from suffering.” What an idea to live by.
The book guides us through a series of trials and tribulations faced by both father and son, together and apart. At its conclusion, the book leaves us to again ponder the question, what are we doing to our children?