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Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Pulitzer Prize Winner Richard Powers’ latest novel Bewilderment has been longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. The novel centres on the relationship between the young astrobiologist, Theo Byrne, and his peculiar nine-year-old son, Robin. At work, Theo searches for new planets teeming with life. At home, he brings Robin to them. They both navigate different challenges in work and school but are united in mourning their beloved Alyssa, Theo’s wife and Robin’s optimistic mother, who died in a car accident along with her unborn daughter.

Throughout her professional life, Alyssa pursued a cause dear to her heart: caring for the earth and its inhabitants. Honouring her memory, Theo helps Robin to grow in wonder, taking him on spontaneous hikes to see mountains and rivers. Theo runs a highly organised household with labels, sticky notes, and tasty vegan dishes. Named after his mother’s favourite bird, the free-spirited Robin seems to resist the easy labelling of institutions. In fact, he is a medical mystery. Doctors and teachers cannot explain his character, yet they unhesitatingly propose their own “cures”—contradictory diagnoses, variegating prescriptions, educational criticisms—as if to mitigate the situation. Robin cannot be boxed in. As the son of a scientist and lawyer, he reveals his power as a daydreamer. He runs on emotional extremes, rejects deadlines, and selects his interests with a passion. He loves to sketch, he adores nature, and he and his father are content to ponder worlds here and beyond.

Powers crafts his dialogue and third-person narration masterfully, revealing the stark vulnerability and quiet strength of parental and filial connections. His figurative language is artistic and exploratory, as are his cultural references to music, art, and poetry. Powers’ reflections range from the pressing themes of our time, from global and national politics and environmentalism to the intimate and gloriously wild experience of childrearing.

Bewilderment is a magnificently written novel that touches the heart. It is an ode to nature, family, past, present, and the future. Most significantly, his central message about the stewardship of the earth, witnessed by our ancestors and our descendants, finds its beating pulse in the relationship between a father and his son. Like his award-winning 2018 novel The Overstory, this book may well be another literary treasure for all readers.

Reviewer: Azariah Alfante

Penguin Random House


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