This rating I’m giving Greenwood stems from my desire to give two different grades to this book if I could. I would give this book three and a half stars out of four for readers who like deep, spiritual books with plots that stay in your thoughts for a long time. But I would also give it one and a half stars for readers who like entertaining heart-racing stories, which are my specialty in reading, reviewing, and writing. Greenwood is a monumental accomplishment toward lovers of poetry, nature, history and natural beauty, but people looking for a story to get them out of a reading slump and be immediately immersed should look elsewhere. Yet in the tangle of me recommending and not recommending this book to various story-goers, my grade when mixed all in is still positive. I spent three weeks reading this monstrosity of a novel, given to me as a Christmas present because of my love for the environment and fear of its literal extinction by human hands, and while it definitely embraces trees, it is not like other stories I tend to read, no sirree!
So how best to describe this book without humungous spoilers? Well, the beginning of the book is an up-close sky view of a tree stump, from a tree that must’ve been around since at least 1908, because its displayed growth rings showcase decades of it slowly getting bigger, wider and stronger. There are five yearly dates named for us on this stump, and the last one is from 2038, when the world is suffering from “The Great Withering”, pollution becoming so bad that famine, poverty, infections and mass death has become global, even in Canada. So much so that Greenwood Island, one of the last thriving resources in the world is a major tourist attraction. Jacinda, or Jake Greenwood, recently got a job as a tour guide there after somehow surviving university in a deteriorating world, and it turns out it’s not a coincidence that she has the same name as the island. Lawyer and ex-boyfriend Silas shows Jake an old, crumpled journal that, unbeknownst to either of them (yet), transcends a family history she never knew she was a part of; a history of the Greenwood family line that is filled with corruption and tragedy. With that we have stories of how it all came to be, out of order and in correct order at the same time, going backwards in time as more and more is revealed.
The first story, of Jake’s and taking place in 2038 as I said, had a terrific setting for a dystopia story, mostly because I found it realistically somber, but I also found the writing a little too poetic and blah. Then when it shifts to 2008 and we get to Liam the carpenter, I began to get really worried I wasn’t in for an enjoyable read. I found Liam a boring character not having much of a life outside of his job and not being interested in anything I am involving 2008, like the financial crash or the possibility of an Obama presidency, which aren’t even mentioned. Liam is a devoted carpenter, and the author Michael Christie has carpentry experience too, and they always say to write what you know. But reading about Liam’s love for the art of cutting, shaping and varnishing wood…it was at a time in the story where it’s important for the reader to get invested in the entire book, and I feel many regular readers would decide to just put the book down going into this section. It’s flat-out boring.
By the time we get to the time period of 1974 and we’re introduced to Willow, even though I sympathized with her desire to protect the environment and her willingness to be extreme by committing crimes and vandalism against lumber and oil companies (at this point, who knows what must be done), I was really not enjoying this. Jake’s story is 37 pages long, and Liam’s is 30, and Willow’s is 20. In a giant 500-paged book. You see, some people like short stories, and good for them. I don’t. Especially when they’re all bundled together in one book.
Five years ago, I read Hyperion by Dan Simmons, a sci-fi novel with six characters taking turns telling deep stories of who they are as they voyage on a boat to look for this demonic being. What I hated was most of these stories (with two exceptions) were lifeless, pointless, and didn’t add anything to the present plot apart from developing the characters who weren’t serving any current purpose. Another book I read a few years later, Field of 13 by Dick Francis, I hated even more. It was literally 13 different stories with different settings and characters, the only connection being all of them had something to do with horses. Characters are the souls, the beings of life in a book, and when I pick one up, I like to be able to get myself rooted in their lives, their dreams and their fears, and to me, short story collections don’t allow that. And this book was shaping up to be like one of them.
But then Greenwood, shortly after a hazy beginning, selects a time period to focus on for most of the book, like planting a tree to stick around, and that’s when I found myself forgiving its rough start. I began to really enjoy the story of Everett Greenwood, his brother Harris, Harris’ assistant Feeney, Temple, and even the slimy Lomax, Holt and McSorley for their entertaining narratives as they grind tooth and nail chasing after the true protagonist of the novel. So much so that I’m going to remember Everett and his hardships for years to come. I even felt a pain in my gut when his time was up in the book. What Hyperion and Field of 13 didn’t have that this book did is a legitimate connection between its different protagonists despite vastly different time periods, and it adds a double layer of icing by making relationships between them that are not just loving, but heartbreakingly complicated.
Everett Greenwood is the true protagonist of this monstrosity of a book, a heartless scavenger who can’t read or write and abandoned his humungously successful brother after the Great War. Everett ends up impulsively doing something he simply deems the right thing, and the more we travel with him and his newfound companion, the more he becomes an unforgettable character.
Considering the title, atmosphere, the stump-patterned spine, and long length of this book presents itself as a book targeted to adults who enjoy deep reading, maybe it doesn’t matter much that this won’t attract many readers my age. I still say Greenwood is a tough sell at first – I’d recommend those interested in it start on page 77, when we get properly introduced in the period of 1974 to some of the true protagonists of the novel – but once these people were introduced and the book chose a story it stuck to, not only did I begin seeing all the layers masked within this riotously thought-provoking book, but I began really enjoying myself.
Greenwood is a large and layered tale, one that’s hard to give a straight-shot review of. It is a bundle of different desires: it’s a poetry piece on trees, it’s a fugitive adventure, it’s a dark tragedy, it’s a question about the meaning of life, and it’s an attempt to inspire readers to know what their ancestors were like before it’s too late to find out. I now know more about the Greenwood family than I do my own family, and you probably will too.