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Bewilderment by Richard Powers: Packs a hell of a punch

Bewilderment by Richard Powers encourages the reader to see the world through the eyes of his nine year old neurodivergent protagonist, writes author Doug Johnstone.

Something weird happens when you’re a novelist. As soon as you write about certain themes and ideas, you begin to see echoes in the work of other writers all over the place. It’s the literary equivalent of buying a certain make and colour of car, then suddenly seeing it everywhere on the road.

Bewilderment by Richard Powers is out now (William Heinemann, £18.99)

Powers won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for his remarkable book The Overstory, a novel that genuinely changed how I view the world.

In comparison, Bewilderment is a more compact and focused story, but it still packs a hell of a punch.

The story revolves around astrophysicist Theo Byrne and his nine-year-old neurodivergent son Robin.

To cope with their loss after the death of Theo’s environmentalist wife, he helps them imagine strange worlds out in space, informed by his work on exoplanets.

Right there on page eight is a discussion of the Great Silence, the theory of possible extraterrestrial life that I used as the title of my new book.

I too used the idea of life on other planets to discuss how we cope with death on this one, and Bewilderment gave me a thrill of recognition.

The book does so much more.

Powers uses Robin’s unique world view to skewer how we disregard our environment, from animal rights to the climate crisis.

As Robin’s behaviour butts up against ‘normal’ society, Theo finds it harder to justify how society is run. When a friend suggests a cutting-edge meditation therapy as an alternative to medication for Robin, Theo jumps at it.

But the conventions of society encroach on their progress, leading to a heartbreaking and nerve-shredding climax.

Bewilderment by Richard Powers is out now (William Heinemann, £18.99)

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