In Greenwood, his thought-provoking second novel, B.C. writer Michael Christie uses the ringed cross-section of a tree as an organizing principle and structure. As Christie writes, “Wood is time captured. A map. A cellular memory. A record.” And, in some cases, a handy metaphor for a family tree.
The book begins in 2038, in the aftermath of a devastating environmental crisis. Jacinda Greenwood, who goes by Jake, is a trained botanist, one of the first scientists to discover “the Great Withering,” which destroyed most of the old-growth forests around the world. In the aftermath, she works as a tour guide in one of the globe’s last remaining forested areas – on Greenwood Island, off the B.C. coast. Jake lives in a dying world but is also subject to more individual concerns: she’s saddled with student loan debt, she’s missed a period, she’s one strike away from losing her job, and she’s just been told that she might be heir to a fortune that includes Greenwood Island itself.
After this establishing section – the cambium, shall we say – the novel moves back in time to 2008, with a contractor reflecting on his life while dying as the result of an on-the-job accident. Next we jump back to 1974 and an environmental activist attempting to redress her family’s responsibility for the destruction of the natural world. And so on, back to the heartwood, a section set in 1908, which forms the geographic and thematic centre of the book. Following this chapter, the novel proceeds forward chronologically to the near-future in a mirror image of the first half.
Structural comparisons to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas are appropriate, but Christie’s goals and intentions seem more restrained, more intimate. At its heart, Greenwood is a family story, fractured and often contradictory (as the best family stories usually are). Much of the pleasure of the book derives from the manner in which questions are answered and mysteries resolved. For the most part, Christie doesn’t force conclusions or resolutions, instead allowing the novel’s plotting and powerful characterizations to do the work.
But the structure – and the uses to which Christie puts it – result in one apparently unanticipated consequence: the sections featuring Jake, which bookend the novel, are ultimately less satisfying than the sections set in the historical past. This may be due, in part, to personal taste. I was most enthralled with the material set in 1934, which features a troubled drifter trying to save a baby girl and finding himself hunted by the police and powerful industrial forces. By contrast, the near-future sections lack much of the scale, pathos, and tragedy that can be found elsewhere.
This is a relatively minor issue in a book of such richness. Christie brings together the intimate and the sweeping, the human world and the natural, the past and the future in a novel that suggests such distinctions don’t – or shouldn’t – really exist.