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‘Greenwood’ is an absorbing saga of families and trees — and how they survive

Literary fiction has its ebbing and flowing trends like anything else: Sprawling family sagas give way to tart short-story collections, magic-inflected tales cede the room to sober autofiction. The abundance of options is stoked by algorithms that assume if you like this, you’ll enjoy a similar that. Michael Christie’s second novel, “Greenwood,” makes it clear that we really want 500-page novels about trees.

“Greenwood” has plenty of competition in this particular subgenre of ecofiction. Richard Powers’s tree-centric, Pulitzer-winning “The Overstory” has spent months perched near or at the top of bestseller lists. Annie Proulx’s hefty 2016 novel about deforestation, “Barkskins,” earned similar acclaim. Karl Marlantes’s 2019 novel, “Deep River,” braided a century’s worth of family drama and political turmoil around Oregon’s logging industry. If you know any of those books, the broad strokes of “Greenwood” will sound like more of the same: paeans to the beauty of trees, the tragedy of their destruction and the complex relationship between human greed and nature’s defiance.

Annie Proulx’s long-awaited, spectacular new novel ‘Barkskins’

But even if you’re suffering from what you might call Literary Tree Fatigue, Christie’s novel is worth reading, in part because it’s a clever mash-up of genres that distinguishes itself from its literary cousins and earns its bulk.

It opens as a dystopian novel: It’s 2038, and climate change is decimating humanity in earnest. The “Great Withering,” a massive tree die-off, has turned much of the planet into a dust bowl, and one of the few refuges left is the Greenwood Arboreal Cathedral, an island near Vancouver that’s retained its lush stands of Douglas firs. As the fancy name suggests, only the wealthy can afford to visit (“Water- and tree-rich Canada has become the global elite’s panic room,” Christie writes). Jake Greenwood, a.k.a. Jacinda, is lucky to avoid the devastation but is paid a pittance to serve as a tour guide on the island, making it impossible to climb out of her student debt.

Jake’s ex arrives at the island with a preposterous suggestion: There’s evidence that she’s a descendant of Harris Greenwood, the timber baron who purchased and preserved the island, and she may be due rightful ownership of it. Jake scoffs. Her shared last name is just a coincidence; her father was a struggling carpenter before he died, and her grandmother was an activist who detested the lumber business. So, cue a historical novel: Christie tunnels backward to 2008, 1974, 1934 and 1908, all signature years in the history of the island and its inhabitants. They are also, pointedly, years of depressions and recessions. “You picked a dying world to show up into,” says Everett Greenwood, Harris’s brother, in 1934, worn down by the Great Depression. Christie means to spotlight the despair that’s marked every crisis moment, with a hopeful hint that we might yet endure the next withering. (Like the rest of those Literary Tree novels, Christie’s seems an uncanny metaphor for our current moment.)

But broad messages aside, the heart of the novel is a winning and energetic chase story. Everett discovers an infant abandoned in the Newfoundland woods. The baby is apparently the daughter of R.J. Holt, an industrialist, and Euphemia, an employee he had an affair with. Euphemia was supposed to give up the baby for adoption but got second thoughts and absconded, dying in the woods. Euphemia kept a journal, and when Everett skips town with it and the child, Holt sends a search party to recover both and silence the potential scandal.

Review: ‘The Overstory,’ by Richard Powers

As Holt’s man Friday attempts to hunt down Everett from the East, his estranged brother Harris is trying to survive in the West, amorally: He cuts deals with the Japanese government, a sworn enemy, and torches half the island’s trees to rout a handful of poachers. The collision course between the two brothers is a matter of economics, but it also involves dueling philosophies about nature. Everett is sensitive to the environment’s fragility: “The tree decides whether it’s worth the effort of going on living or not, and there’s no way you can convince it otherwise. They’re finicky things.” Harris is more cynical: “Those who really know trees know they’re also ruthless. They’ve been fighting a war for sunlight and sustenance since before we existed. And they’d gladly crush or poison every single one of us if it gave them any advantage.”

Family trees, Christie suggests, are just as knotty and complicated as real ones, and he’s expertly studded the novel with revelations about Greenwood family history. So Jake, when we return to her in the closing passages, has at once a rock-solid case for inheritance and shaky ground to stand on. The moral choice she faces is the same one everyone in the narrative does: When do we choose self-preservation, and when do we choose survival in a broader sense? The question has never gone away, but “Greenwood” closes with the message that it’s increasingly urgent. “Why is it that people are engineered to live just enough to pile up a lifetime of mistakes but not long enough to fix them?” he writes. “If only we were like trees. . . . If only we had centuries.”

Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”

By Michael Christie

Hogarth. 480 pp. $28

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