The Canadian writer Michael Christie is a former professional skateboarder whose debut novel, If I Fall, If I Die, was a semi-autobiographical story of an 11-year-old boy caring for a severely agoraphobic mother. Christie’s off-kilter style presented a peculiarly Canadian perspective on the vast, empty landscape: “My mother claimed that because nature was always trying to kill Canadians it made them different from other people.”
The follow-up, Greenwood, is a dense yet exhilarating eco-parable that spans a period from the great depression to a bleak prediction of the very near future. But at its heart lies that same Canadian paranoia about the natural world. Harris Greenwood is a lumberman raised during the leanest years of the 1930s, who has made a healthy fortune hacking down swaths of British Columbian forest. His rationale is that even the mighty sequoia are merely “weeds on poles”; and that clearing them is a necessary, pre-emptive form of self-defence. “You think trees are sacred, that they love you. That they grow for your enjoyment. But those who really know trees know they’re also ruthless. They’ve been fighting a war for sunlight and sustenance since before we existed.”
Over the generations the Greenwood lumber empire has diminished as catastrophically as the forests it plundered. The decline begins with Harris’s ill-advised deal to supply railway sleepers to Japan shortly before the outbreak of the second world war. Later his estranged adopted daughter Willow gains posthumous revenge by handing her entire inheritance to a chaotic hippie collective in the 70s. Her son Liam is left to scrape a living as an artisan carpenter, crafting increasingly scarce reclaimed wood into boardroom tables. But the opening chapters of the novel are set in 2038, and feature Liam’s daughter Jacinda Greenwood (known as Jake); a graduate dendrologist with a mountain of student debt living in a world almost entirely devoid of trees.
Christie posits a world attempting to recover from an ecological catastrophe known as the Great Withering, during which rising temperatures unleashed a virulent new strain of fungus that destroys trees. The lack of a forest canopy causes soils to dry up, creating “killer dust clouds as fine as all-purpose flour”. The world is left swarming with desperate climate refugees, many suffering from “rib-retch”; a lethal, hacking cough that “snaps ribs like kindling”.
In the new world order, the Canadian prime minster emerges as the most powerful woman on earth, with the vast and, in places, still-green country functioning as “a global panic room for the world’s elite”. Jake finds herself working as a vastly over-qualified tour guide at a Pacific island re-branded as the “Greenwood Arboreal Cathedral”: an exclusive resort where the super-rich take therapeutic breaks in one of the world’s last surviving old-growth forests. “They come to be reminded that the earth’s once-thundering green heart has not flatlined, that it isn’t too late and all is not lost. They come here to the Greenwood Arboreal Cathedral to ingest this outrageous lie, and it’s Jake Greenwood’s job as Forest Guide to spoon-feed it to them.”
The speculative episodes contain the most arresting and bleakly realised passages of the book, but they form merely the outer perimeter of a layered narrative constructed like the growth rings of a giant redwood. The scale of Christie’s ambition becomes apparent when the novel goes head-to-head with the greatest dust-bowl narrative ever told. The allusions to The Grapes of Wrath are far from hidden – Liam Greenwood observes the hipster clientele of a Brooklyn cafe “in their old-time canvas aprons, linen work shirts and perfectly distressed boots like they’ve stepped out of the pages of a Steinbeck novel”. But the sections set in the 30s resound with authentically Steinbeckian cadences, albeit slightly modified in vocabulary: “Smothering dusters scoured the lead paint from the barn and house, leaving great swaths of pinewood as white as a farmer’s bared ass.”
Every generation produces prophets convinced that the age we are living in will be the last. Yet who in the present climate can confidently dismiss as fiction Christie’s depiction of “the quaint period before the Withering when people still believed that well-intended, measured engagement could avert catastrophe”? Perhaps the most prescient sections of the book are those that depict the dawn of climate activism in the 70s. Jake’s feckless grandmother Willow is among the original tribe of earth-warriors; yet saving trees is to her as much a self-conscious pose as cultivating underarm hair and a lentil diet. “Why is it, she wonders casually, that we expect our children to be the ones to halt deforestation and to rescue the planet tomorrow when we are the ones overseeing its destruction today?”
Christie’s book predicts a horribly plausible ecological Armageddon; and though it may not be the first to suggest that the opportunity to avert catastrophe has already passed, its great summation could well be the old Chinese proverb that Willow is fond of quoting: “The best time to plant a tree is always 20 years ago. And the second-best time is always now.”
• Greenwood is published by Scribe (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.