Charting the story of a family across generations brings with it many pitfalls that could inevitably lead to a weak link in a story’s chain. Walking a path that takes you through many voices, many times and many feelings is enough to get a great many storytellers lost. The same is true of stories with a very particular, even metaphorical sense of structure, as the scaffolding has a tendency to obscure the heart of the piece. So there’s a lot that could have fallen short with a novel like Greenwood, which does all of the above. But with the expert, deft hands of a seasoned carpenter, author Michael Christie carefully and methodically pieces together a story as intricate as the rings within a tree. The result is a deeply compelling novel of family and memory.
In the year 2038, Jacinda “Jake” Greenwood is working off her crippling student debt by working as a guide in the “cathedral” that is one of the world’s last forests. The planet surrounding the cathedral has undergone a “Great Withering,” which left the island as one of the last refuges of old-growth trees. The trees have always felt like home to Jake, but as we meet her, two things happen that make her question everything: a strange development in the trees themselves, and news about her family heritage that shakes her to her core.
From there, Christie works backward and then forward again in time, charting the history of the Greenwood family by moving toward the center of his drama and then back out again, like following the rings of a tree. This sense of formalism could prove stuffy, but Christie creates a sense of poetic, organic symmetry through rich characters and evocative, almost tactile descriptions. Even if readers are sad to leave Jake’s storyline in order to get to know her family, they may become just as captivated by her grandmother, Willow, and the ancestors that come before her.
The structure provides a captivating spine for Greenwood, but what stands out most by the end is the way in which Christie has been able to evoke and give voice to the way the cumulative effect of time and memory weighs on us all in ways both uplifting and terrifying. Greenwood is a towering, profound novel about the things that endure even as the world seems to be moving on.