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‘Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers: A Book Review

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I was thrilled to be offered the chance to review Bewilderment. Richard Powers is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Bewilderment had been longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize (and is now on the final shortlist). Conversation about this book was likely to be as big as any literary fiction release this year and I had been invited to join in too! Let me start by saying that Bewilderment is a bewitching blend of science, parenting, and wonderful writing. It’s beautiful and geekily brilliant throughout.  

What is Bewilderment?

Bewilderment is the story of a father and son. Their wife and mother, Aly, was killed in an accident two years before the book opens. Theo, father of Robin and narrator of the story, is an astrobiologist. He looks into the heavens and tries to find planets that might sustain life. Robin is considered by the authorities to be on the autistic spectrum. Theo feels that they want to label, pigeonhole, and medicate his son. Robin is articulate and fascinated by the world around him. When Robin smashes his friend in the face with a thermos, Theo is given an ultimatum. It’s time to put Robin on psychoactive drugs or be removed from the school system. 

Why Read Bewilderment?

It’s hard to know where to start with this really. Bewilderment is a relatively slender volume, at less than 300 pages. (Compare this with Powers’ Pulitzer-winning Overstory, which clocked in at over 600.) Yet despite its brevity, it covers many themes and topics. 

Firstly, from a purely scientific point of view, the astrobiology stuff is fascinating. It’s reminiscent of the “What If?” type stories found in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Doors of EdenThe search for life goes far beyond looking for little green men and Goldilocks planets. I hadn’t realized how far the science had evolved since my undergraduate days, back when I had time to keep a vague eye on developments in astronomy. 

Aly (Theo’s late white) was an environmentalist and this directly informs Robin’s attitude towards the planet we share with so many other lifeforms. Robin is passionate about the natural world, both local and global. He and Theo campaign for environmental rights in the book. Bewilderment contains a thick “we must do something about climate change” chord. At times Powers borders on being too didactic—a criticism I’ve seen leveled at the novel in the British broadsheet press. It’s hard to refute this opinion, but then, as a planet, we seemed to be determined to close our eyes, jam our fingers in our ears, and shout, “la la la la la la,” so a strong message, reinforced, is arguably more than necessary. 

The main thread of the novel, the main bewilderment, if you will, is the raising of a child. The small person that is part of you yet is wholly not you. Theo’s navigation of trying to work out what to do for the best for Robin is deeply affecting. I’ve never had to make such a complex decision for my children, but the agony of trying to determine the best course of action is deftly portrayed. The difficulty of assimilating all the information. Trying to ensure your head is ruling your heart, but also that your heart isn’t stacking the deck against the head. It’s all here. 

In the middle of the novel, Powers picks up another thread. Theo contacts an old friend, one he and Aly once helped out with a science experiment that looked at brain function and emotion via MRI. After Robin lashes out with the thermos, Theo persuades the friend to let Robin have a scan, so that they might better examine his brain function. The results bear fruit and lead to a therapy of sorts. Again, more fascinating science is packed into the story.

This starts a domino effect of examinations within the novel; about the ethics of science when it’s governed by money, the ripples of social media, and the problems of an insular society with a reactionary government. It’s hard to imagine how they might all fit into a single narrative but they do. 

If I had a criticism of Bewilderment it’s that everything ends abruptly. But that is just one more bewilderment for the reader. Things don’t end mid-sentence or anything like that, but the only thing that lets the reader know that the story of Theo and Robin will soon end is that the book is running out of pages. I feel like their story is one that could run and run.

Having initially been dismayed at the abrupt finale, the more I thought about it, the more I felt it fits the narrative. Life is bewildering and unlike most novels, its stories do not neatly finish. A story is told for as long as you tell it, but life continues after the narrator has finished. 

As one might expect from a prizewinning author, Bewilderment is an artfully constructed novel. It’s delivered in small sections that are easy to consume and very addictive. This is an almost perfect geek parent novel. It’s a fabulous blend of parenting, science, and science fiction (in a “fiction about science” sense, rather than spaceships and rayguns). You live every moment with the characters of Bewilderment. Powers ensure that their happiness is your happiness, their pain is your pain. I loved it from start to finish. I have no idea what makes a novel prize-worthy, but come the end of 2021, this book will surely have been one of my favorite reads of the year. 

If you’d like to pick up a copy of Bewilderment, you can do so here in the U.S., and here in the UK. 

If you enjoyed this review, do check out my other book reviews. 

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in order to write this review. 

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