WORDS Sara Putman, owner Bookish, visit bookishfs.com
by Richard Powers
In 2019, Richard Powers’ The Overstory won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. This multigenerational epic rooted in the life of trees asked very difficult questions: Is there a way for us to find our way back from the destruction we have inflicted on the planet? Even though Powers has been quoted as saying The Overstory would be his last novel, it seems he was obliged to answer the question.
He does just that in his newest novel, Bewilderment, whose narrator is astrobiologist Theo Byrne. Byrne is – as you might assume – ridiculously intelligent and doing amazing work, but his purpose is continually questioned by his nine-year-old son, Robin. Both are grieving the loss of Robin’s mother, and both find solace in the woods. The book opens with father and son on a camping trip, and while they spend time looking at stars and discussing the possibilities of life elsewhere, it is the life surrounding them that comforts them. Robin is named after his mother’s favorite bird, after all.
We soon realized that Robin is plagued with grief and anger. He is only calm in nature and is unable to connect to other humans. Powers flirts with elements of science fiction when Theo signs his son up to be part of a series of tests at the university he works with. Robin is linked to the information gathered from his mother, and he learns very quickly how to cope. This mother-son bond, even after death, proves to be quite complicated, especially for Theo. Even throughout the months spent testing, Robin continues to find solace in nature. He works tirelessly on drawings of endangered species and sells them to raise money for a well-known organization. When he realizes that only pennies of the money raised will go to the animals, he is outraged.
Bewilderment is set in the future, but there are elements of our past peppered throughout. Because of this timeline, Powers comments, quite explicitly, about our current world. There is political unrest and catastrophic weather, and a virus that moves from cow to human. All these murmurs in the background work to make us realize the urgency of what is happening to the planet. Through Theo’s conflict and constant worry about his son, readers will find answers.
This, I believe, is the beauty of Bewilderment. We are all looking for an answer to problems that seem too big to fix. We are searching for something that will help us make sense of the world, and a way for us to connect – not only to each other – but to nature. And there are so many of us who are continually teetering on the edge of grief. We are comforted by the robins splashing in a puddle after the rain or the late-blooming roses that hate to tell us goodbye. Robin’s journey is not an easy one, but it is the human journey, and Powers has imparted something special to his readers that will help us all find our way back.