By Richard Powers
© 2021, W.W.Norton & Company
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Following the death of his wife, astrobiologist Theo Byrne is raising their son Robin alone. Robin is smart, warm, deep, and in love with Nature, especially endangered animals. But Robin is also deeply troubled, and about to be expelled from school for his emotional outbursts. Theo struggles to find ways to help Robin cope until he stumbles upon an experimental program that offers to train Robin to control himself using neurofeedback patterns of his mother’s brain.
Powers, author of The Overstory, is known for his beautiful prose, especially descriptions of the natural world. Bewilderment is no exception. Throughout the book, as Robin struggles to understand humankind’s ignorance of the effect it is having on endangered animals and their surrounding environments, Theo takes him camping deep in the woods of a nearby state park. Powers’ descriptions of the forest, birds, animals, and waterways, are stunning, placing the reader squarely in-scene. He doesn’t just describe the elements, but the feeling that being in that setting brings and the effect such a peaceful place has on a troubled youth.
But Bewilderment isn’t just limited to descriptions of Earth’s beauty and savagery. As an astrobiologist, Theo frequently describes to Robin the potential environments of other discovered exoplanets, going into detail about what kinds of life would thrive there, and how it would differ from our own. The overall effect is to communicate the intimate tie residents of a world have to the environment in which they live. In the two Powers books I’ve read, the author’s strong eco-fiction message is prevalent, but not preachy. He doesn’t tell us we have to save our world. He shows us what will happen if we don’t and the effect it will have on the animals and on the people.
This story is told through the eyes of Theo, but Robin is every bit as much a primary character even though we don’t see anything through his eyes. Though it is clear throughout the story that Robin is not neurotypical, Powers never gives him a definitive diagnosis. Instead, he reveals in a conversation the “votes” Theo has received from various doctors, including Asperger’s, ADHD, and a host of others. Bewilderment is not just a story of the effect we have on the natural world but of the far more intimate relationship between Theo and his son. Their shared moments as Robin spirals out of control and Theo struggles to find ways to reach him, to help him learn balance, are poignant and evocative. Any parent who has undergone a similar experience will surely find some measure of common ground here.
I won’t offer any spoilers, but it is worth mentioning that Bewilderment is a heartrending story, with no happy ending. Sometimes things don’t work out well no matter how hard we try. That doesn’t change the tragic beauty of Theo and Robin’s story, but if you are looking for a book with a happily ever after, don’t read this book.
If, on the other hand, you enjoy tales of human struggle, and especially of human/Nature interactions, even when they don’t end well, you may find what you seek in this book. Beautifully told, Bewilderment will reach into your heart and mind and touch you in all the right places. And hopefully, when you turn the last page, you will walk away with more compassion for parents in Theo’s shoes, for children like Robin, and for the plight of endangered animals and the natural world.