If you read enough dystopian or apocalyptic literature, and this reviewer most certainly does, you will quickly come to appreciate how many possible ways there are in which humanity could, as a species, shuffle off this mortal coil.
Numerous they may be but none are likely as poetic in their looming horror as the events depicted in Michael Christie’s luminously immersive novel Greenwood which sprawls over a century and four conflicted generations as it tells the story of one family and their connection to an island full of gloriously verdant, tall old growth forest.
Greenwood Island, which bears the name of the family to which it means so much, is one of the last remaining stands of trees anywhere in the world, one of the few survivors of a die-off that began in 2028 and which, by the time of the “present day” events that begin and end the book, is close to endangering even these enduring remnants of Earth’s once mighty belt of green.
So rare and unique is the island that people known rather euphemistically as Pilgrims, flock from around the world to walk through it, granted a brief reprieve from the dust of the decaying world around them.
Humanity’s days are well and truly numbered but for the brief time the Pilgrims are on the island they can pretend the world is as it always was and that life will continue on as it has for eons.
Jake Greenwood aka Jacinda knows, of course, that it’s all a lie but given that her hope of having any kind of future rests on staying in the rarefied atmosphere of the forest, she plays along with the make believe until, of course, the trees she loves give every sign of succumbing to the same climate change-driven afflictions that have killed off their brethren overseas.
“They come for the trees.
To smell their needles. To caress their bark. To be regenerated in the humbling loom of their shadows. To stand mutely in their leafy churches and pray to their thousand-year-old souls.
From the world’s dust-choked cities they venture to this exclusive arboreal resort—a remote forested island off the Pacific Rim of British Columbia—to be transformed, renewed, and reconnected. To be reminded that the Earth’s once-thundering green heart has not flatlined, that the soul of all living things has not come to dust and that it isn’t too late and that all is not lost. They come here to the Greenwood Arboreal Cathedral to ingest this outrageous lie, and it’s Jake Greenwood’s job as Forest Guide to spoon-feed it to them.” (P. 3)
Her deep-seated love of trees and the sprawling forests they create is the product of a family which has been inextricably linked to the Earth’s arboreal inhabitants for well over a hundred years.
Alas, Jake, who is the end result of a century of pain, loss, familial fracturing and estrangement – the Greenwoods are not among the happiest or luckiest of people, cursed it seems with the love of something so great that everything else, even their connections with each other, pale into nothing – is unaware of this long strand of belonging.
However, readers of Greenwood, told with such nuanced beauty and a layered sense of storytelling so absorbing and perfectly-executed that reaching its end engenders the same sadness that Pilgrims feel leaving the island, are made privy to the trials and tribulations of the Greenwoods through a story that begins in 2038, travels back to 1908 with stops in 1974 and 1934 before going back through the years to its chronological starting point.
It is an expansive tale that feels so subsuming and honest that you can’t help but marvel at the way in which Christie brings a thousand strands together to create a mesmerisingly affecting whole.
Lingering questions that you might have at the start of the book are answered as the book goes back in time with such effortless grace and seamless interlocking that the answers fall into your lap in such a way that it begins to feel like they’ve always been there and you’ve known them all along.
The great beauty of such elegantly-executed writing is that you come to know each of the characters and their highs and lows, their hopes and desires and the often grim unsatisfying and disappointing realities of their lives in intimate, all-encompassing detail.
What begin as allusions and indications becomes, through layer after layer of movingly nuanced storytelling, a complete and intimately in-depth examination of how one family are blessed and cursed in equal measure by the inability to love and value each other as they do the trees around which many of the events of their lives revolve.
Christie paints a beguiling picture of the way in which one simple if traumatic moment in time – in this case how two unrelated boy survivors of a cataclysmic 1908 train crash near a small Canadian town end up as brothers who beget a family which is never really whole or truly at home with itself.
The act by the two townspeople to unite the boys into a made-up family is seen as an act of benevolence, a chance to redeem something good out of something unimaginably horrific and while some good does come out of it, like many families, a great deal of dysfunction does too.
Wherever we are in Greenwood‘s grand and all-enveloping sweep of time and place, trees predominate whether it is the two boys who grow up to be estranged brothers Harris and Everett Greenwood cutting down great swathes of British Columbian forest or Harris’s daughter Willow’s determination to fight for the forest’s protection or her son Liam’s (Jake’s father) rebellion against her single-minded ecological militarism.
“‘You picked a dying world to show up into,’ Everett tells Pod, as dusty sails peel off the stricken prairie hardpan and fly up to scrape their eyes. Though they also have the dust to thank for their rescue: the express train they’d been trapped on for three days had halted this morning only after they’d passed into Saskatchewan and the locomotive boiler’s intake became clogged.” (P. 254)
As love letters to the maddening complexity, beguiling wonder and an alternating sense belonging and alienation that are families, Greenwood is peerless, a masterpiece that goes big and bold without once forsaking a powerful sense of humanity and emotional resonance.
It is, quite simply, the way all sprawling family sagas should be, full of momentous decisions and seismic turning points and yet grounded and real, a powerfully affecting approach since what are the big, noticeable and transformative events of our lives without the small but constantly present moments of the everyday to give them context and make sense of them.
Or at least given them a tableau on which to unfurl?
Greenwood succeeds in linking great amounts of space and time, which by any measure, should be overwhelmingly exclusive, with a beautiful sense of closeness and intimacy that suggests that for all the loss, pain and regret of lives that never quite meet where they should and or deliver what people want, there is a sense of being part of something bigger than themselves which, for better or ill, binds people together as families whether they want to be to or not, and which, thanks to the trees, connect them in ways both grounded and mystical, temporal or forever.
Or at least as long as the trees may live, however long that may be.