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Bewilderment by Richard Powers

As seen:

  • Booker Prize 2021 longlist

By Richard Powers

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7 reviews

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Theo Byrne is a promising young astrobiologist who has found a way to search for life on other planets dozens of light years away. He is also the widowed father of a most unusual nine-year-old. His son Robin is funny, loving, and filled with plans. He thinks and feels deeply, adores animals, and can spend hours painting elaborate pictures. He is also on the verge of being expelled from third grade, for smashing his friend’s face with a metal thermos.

What can a father do, when the only solution offered to his rare and troubled boy is to put him on psychoactive drugs? What can he say when his boy comes to him wanting an explanation for a world that is clearly in love with its own destruction? The only thing for it is to take the boy to other planets, while all the while fostering his son’s desperate campaign to help save this one.


24 Jan 2023


Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist who spends his working hours searching for life in other parts of the universe. After the death of his wife he is also responsible for singlehandedly bringing up his nine-year old son, Robin, a sensitive child who feels deeply about nature, the planet and his surroundings but who is a troubled individual and needs some sort of expert help. Determined to avoid administering the psychoactive drugs that doctors are recommending, Theo opts for a new treatment, still in the very experimental stage of development, which involves training Robin using his mother’s stored brain patterns. Intermingled with this story of father and son are strong views on both politics and the environment.

There was a lot to like about this book. Although it is set in the future, it is not set very far ahead so everyday life is very much “life as we know it” which, from my point of view is a good thing as I am not a great fan of futuristic imaginings.
The relationship between father and son is portrayed beautifully and the deep love that they feel for each other is both tender and moving. In difficult circumstances Theo does his best to bring his son up as well as he possibly can and overall I think he makes a pretty good job of it (although I am hardly an expert). I really enjoyed this whole aspect of the novel.

However, there was another aspect which I found less palatable, largely because it was so forceful in places that I felt as though I was being preached at. Woven into the wonderful story of Theo and Robin are some very major political and environmental issues. The problem for me was that, whilst these could legitimately have been introduced in a subtle way as part of the agenda of both father and son as well as a means of cementing their relationship and moving it forward, that is not the way that they were presented. It was more of a full-on, in your face bible-bashing approach. Whilst the book started off very strongly I felt it lost its way as it progressed and became rather dull as the “issues” came to the forefront and the human aspects of the story took a back seat.
There was also something odd about the whole way the child’s diagnosis was sidestepped, to the point where the father, quite early on in the book lists some of the character attributes of his wonderful son Robin and says “Tell me what deficit matched up with all that? What diagnosis explained him?”. I think to most of us the answer would have been fairly obvious – Robin was somewhere on the autistic spectrum. At the time it irritated me that this diagnosis was being denied but, having finished the book and reflected on it some more, I wonder whether it is actually cleverer than that and that this is the father taking on the role of an “unreliable narrator”, unwilling to “categorise” his son when he sees him as being so unique and so special (which of course he is). Understanding very little about what it is like to parent a child who is “on the spectrum”, I cannot really come to a conclusion about how I might react in that situation. On balance I think I am willing to give the father the benefit of the doubt in this instance, although if the “unreliable narrator” explanation is intended, I think the subtlety of it may be one step too far for a book of this sort and may just exasperate readers rather than endear them to the complexities of the father’s feelings for his son. There are indeed comments online from a number of quite cross readers who had issues with this lack of diagnosis.

Overall I am very glad that I read this book and I would definitely recommend it to other people, despite my reservations.

12 Jan 2023


A moving story of a widowed father trying to keep safe and explain the world and people to his 9 year old son Robbie.
Not having a definite diagnosis or label for his sons none conforming behaviour and way of interperating the world and peoples reactions was a major in fathers thoughts and anger.
i found this a confusing book. Probably because it appeared to be written by the father who also had problems relating to the world around him. His late wife also did not fit in with 'normal' behaviour. Such a struggle with what is conceived as normal and a unacceptance of different behaviour.
So much going on in the book I have no way of writting the review except saying it was a very sad, upsetting and frustrating life for both father and son

03 Jan 2023


Copies of this book were sent to our book group in return for an honest review.
Bewilderment is exceptionally well written. We felt it was one of those times when from the minute you start reading you know you are in the hands of a skilled and capable writer. Powers navigates complex terrain seemingly effortlessly. The book feels well mapped and meticulous whilst retaining huge emotional ‘wallop’.
It is an excellent exploration of the blurring of lines between human and animal; real and imagined existence; earth and space; neuro diversity and neuro typically. It examines boundaries and asks questions of how far we would be willing to push those boundaries. For example, would you change the neurology of someone you loved if you saw it made them a more settled version of themselves. And how far is that different from using medication.
As a group we have two parents of autistic young people. The portrayal of the emotional spikes was realistic and insightful. The son is authentically narrated and the sensitivity in the writing is never marred by saccharine drivel. There is an integrity in the relationship and the description of it.
You are able to fully engage and relate to the characters and they are both believable and multi dimensional. The only hesitation we had was quite how perfect the father was in his responses to his son's outbursts and crises.⁸ Experience for some of us is that as parents faced with that we struggle to control our frustrations outwardly and inwardly.
Though beautifully described, we struggled with some of the planetary interludes. It occasionally felt a little contrived and definitely went above our areas of knowledge. Sometimes this elevated the narrative but there were times when it was impenetrable and some of our group admitted to skim reading sections in order to return to the more human element. I suspect we were however missing something that with greater insight may have added massively to the tone of the novel.

We would absolutely recommend this book. We were moved beyond words by the ending and it has moments within its pages which will stay with us for a long while.

06 Dec 2022


I'm not a big reader of sci fi or speculative fiction and the science elements mostly went over my head, but I was bowled over by the Feelings induced by this book.

There are flaws- characters written more for what they stand for than as real people, a tad heavy on didactic messaging, an anti medical establishment theme troubled me, with echoes of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories- but anything that stirs emotions and gets you thinking the way this book does must be good writing.

There's a persistent sense of wonder, at the universe, the natural world and our place in it, that I loved. The depiction of a Father-Son relationship is just beautiful. I liked, too, how Powers uses the classic story 'Flowers for Algernon' which I read a very long time ago in high school. The near-future dystopian America under a Trumpish President leading a rolling back of the Enlightenment is, of course, only too real. I was, however, left wondering whether this anti-science, Creationist movement went beyond America, though there is a character clearly based on Greta Thunberg.

The best science fiction tells the reader more about their own times than any future world, and this novel has powerful messages about the catastrophes of climate change and loss of biodiversity that must be tackled if we are to have a future on this planet.

27 Nov 2022


Beautiful, intelligent and poignant. The overriding theme is the relationship between a scientist (Theo) and his neurodivergent son (Robin) as they both try to deal with bereavement. Chapters are short often fanciful as Theo creates imaginary worlds for his son to escape into. Laced with scientific facts and references to an experimental programme for behaviour management, scientific approaches to parenting sometimes overtook the innate and practical and at times I was conflicted by this.
Significant attention is given to climate change. Coupled with jibes at the political administration of the time for the negative impact their policies made on the environment and research programmes a sense of how fragile we really are is clearly portrayed. Combine this with a rather technical approach to parenting and these themes make for a multifactorial, thought provoking and immensely moving read.

With thanks to Vintage for a copy of the book.

08 Nov 2022

St Regulus SM

Otherworldly and dreamy, this book captivated me from the start. It delivers important environmental messages crafted into the story of a father’s love for his son. This novel straddles several genres which will give it a wide appeal. Deeply moving and thought provoking.

28 Oct 2021


An incredible novel. A beautiful story beautifully written. It's powerful, unique, moving, interesting, informative, thought-provoking, kind of sci-fi but not, and has such believable characters, especially the (possibly autistic) boy. I was totally gripped - couldn't put it down.

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