Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Theo Byrne, a rising star in the field of astrobiology, has lost his wife, leaving him the sole parent to nine-year-old Robin. Robin is both a fascinating and a troubled boy. His love and appreciation of art and nature are boundless but he struggles to fit into normal life, reacting violently to his fellow students and inconsolably to the existential threat of the climate crisis. With Robin unable to cope at his primary school, Theo is brought in and offered an ultimatum by the school: get Robin clinical (and pharmaceutical) help or get him a new school.

An opportunity to change his son’s life without pharmaceutical interventions presents itself when a former colleague of Theo’s wife suggests a new experimental neuro-feedback treatment for Robin that will allow him to boost his emotional control using the recorded patterns of his deceased mother’s brain.

Richard Powers has published 13 novels and has received or been shortlisted for nearly every literary prize in the English-speaking world, including the Pulitzer, the National Book Award and the Booker Prize. Bewilderment is the latest in this long line of esteemed works, and it has already generated buzz for its inclusion on this year’s Booker Prize shortlist.

Bewilderment shares many concerns with Powers’ last novel, The Overstory. Unsurprisingly, global warming and the desecration of our natural spaces are still on his mind. But where The Overstory was sweeping and grand, Bewilderment is personal and intimate – the cast of characters and the geographical range of the novel is much reduced in size, but this reduction in scope has the effect of making Powers’ work more heartbreaking and more urgent than ever. This novel is a love letter to the precious and fragile nature of family, fatherhood and the natural world.

Tristen Brudy is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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Richard Powers

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