Michael Christie
McClelland & Stewart, 2019
490 pages
ISBN 978-0-7710-245-0

Reviewed by Brooklynn Hook

“Wood is time captured. A map. A cellular memory. A record.” Spanning 138 years, Greenwood is structured like the cross-section of a tree, the rings of which physically record time passing, and is reflected visually in the novel’s Table of Contents. The oldest events occur in 1908, nestled in the middle rings, and the near future events of 2038 hover on the outer rings.

The novel begins in the outer ring with Jacinda, who prefers to go by Jake, Greenwood. Jake works as an overqualified tour guide in one of the world’s last remaining forests on Greenwood Island, a place where rich people congregate to experience the dwindling trees, “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.” It pays Jake’s bills. Of course student loan debt has outlasted the trees. Jake thinks the island’s connection to her family name is sheer coincidence until someone from her past appears with a book that could give her the family history she has never had and has long desired.

The next section brings the reader to 2008. Liam Greenwood, a contractor and gifted carpenter, has just suffered an accident on the job and reflects on his life as he dies.

1974 introduces environmental activist Willow Greenwood as she attempts to rectify the destruction caused by her family’s vast timber empire.

In 1934, Everett Greenwood is alone in his squat shack in the woods where he collects maple syrup when he hears the cries of an abandoned infant. In this moment he makes the decision that gets him tangled up in series of crimes, secrets, and betrayal that follows his family for decades.

In 1908, the centre of the novel, a tragedy binds the fates of two mysterious and wild boys, which sets the events of the novel in motion. The novel then moves forward through time again in a mirror reflection of the first half.

Greenwood is a unique blend of speculative, dystopian, and historical fiction. In his second novel to be long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Michael Christie asks the question: “What if most of Earth’s forests were wiped out by fungal infection and insect infestation?” He doesn’t soft-pedal the dire environmental consequences, nor the social impact of the collapse he terms the Great Withering: displacement, gaping divide between rich and poor, and serious health hazards. It makes for a great hook and sets in motion the novel that follows the Greenwood family.

Christie takes the reader on a riveting, inter-generational journey that starts and ends on an island off the coast of British Columbia. After revealing lies, secrets, joys, sacrifices, loves, and losses, Christie arrives at an answer: “What are families other than fictions? Stories told about a particular cluster of people for a particular reason? And like all stories, families are not born, they’re invented, pieced together from love and lies and nothing else.” The Greenwood family is hardly related through blood, but rather their shared experiences and chance circumstances have brought them together.

Christie insists a family is like a forest, collectively “pooling resources together through intertwined roots, sheltering one another from wind and weather and drought.” People cannot survive without their network of roots, and neither can trees. The Great Withering, a discolouration of fir needles from green to a “cinnamon tinge,” is all too possible in our current climate crisis. Today foliage on some Western Red Cedars turn a rust red after periods of drought, a withering on a smaller scale. Christie’s opinion piece in The Globe and Mail titled, “Canada Needs a National Tree-Planting Program,” urges readers to “put some damn trees in the ground.”

Greenwood is well researched, timely, and advocates for solutions. In a time when it is easy to imagine a future like the one Christie has presented, works like Greenwood are imperative. The plot is driven by mysteries and big questions, as is the nature of speculative fiction and family drama.

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