Book review: Birnam Wood, Eleanor Catton

What happens when a gardening guerrilla group becomes entangled with a billionaire?

The title of Eleanor Catton’s third novel, and her first since she won the Man Booker Prize for The Luminaries at the age of just 28, comes from Macbeth. An apparition prophesises that Macbeth will only be defeated when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. Contrary to Macbeth’s reasonable expectations, Birnam Wood eventually does (sort of) arrive when soldiers disguise themselves using branches from the wood. In Catton’s novel, the name is adopted by a group of guerrilla gardeners in New Zealand who, along with other legitimate activities, trespass with the goal of growing produce on underutilised or abandoned land. 

This combination of edginess and homeliness – crime and gardening – serves as a motif for the book. On the back sleeve, Francis Spufford describes it as being like a thriller by George Eliot. At first blush, this seems a contradiction in terms, like a rap album by Mozart, but there is something to the comparison. Catton has Eliot’s gift for observing human nature and describing it pithily. Take, for example, an early description of the friendship between Mira (the founder of Birnam Wood) and her sidekick Shelley: ‘[Mira] knew, and was ashamed to know, that one of the reasons she had never taken Shelley’s friendship all that seriously was that it lacked any sense of sexual possibility or contest.’ It is simple but devastating in its insight: pure Eliot. 

Catton also shows Eliot’s compassion for her characters, even the unlikeable or roguish ones. None of the Birnam Wood collective are presented to us as wholly sympathetic, but their failings are more forgivable because Catton lets us understand their foibles. For example, when Shelley decides she wants out of Birnam Wood, she considers the easiest approach is to sleep with Mira’s erstwhile love interest Tony who, unbeknownst to Mira, has returned to New Zealand, thus ending her friendship with Mira entirely. The hideousness of that plan is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Catton shows us just how mortified Shelley is by the thought of confronting her friend. 

Birnam Wood soon becomes involved with the enigmatic US billionaire Robert Lemoine, who offers them funding and a planting site on a property he is buying to build a doomsday bunker. It is from this point, after a relatively sedate start, that the novel takes on its thriller qualities and quickly becomes impossible to put down.

Catton does not sacrifice any of her literary credentials as the narrative pace ratchets up, but writing Lemoine is a highwire act. He is the kind of character one could expect to encounter in a James Bond film, less so a literary novel. If the reader cannot take him seriously as a character, however, the novel’s edifice would crumble. In my view, Catton pulls this off by not delving too deeply into Lemoine’s consciousness – contrary to the way she portrays her other characters. By showing us mainly his surfaces and only glimpses of what is underneath, Lemoine is able to remain ambiguous and, at least for me, plausible. 

Read: Book review: Clytemnestra, Constanza Casati

The novel engages in a lot of topics at the forefront of the zeitgeist – including environmental degradation, identity politics and the nature of contemporary capitalism. However, not only do these themes not crowd out the narrative, they are the narrative in a way that feels organic, not contrived. In this, as well as in the plotting, Birnam Wood is a remarkable achievement. It seems destined for the screen, either as a film or prestige mini-drama. When it emerges as one, I can envisage it being an enormous success. My advice is to get ahead of the curve by reading it now and, when the time comes, to try to avoid the temptation you will feel to annoy your friends by insisting the book was better. 

Birnam Wood, Eleanor Catton
Publisher: Granta
ISBN: 9780241554777
Format: Hardrback
Pages: 480 pp
Release Date: 04 April 2023
RRP: $45

Ned Hirst is a lawyer and writer based in Sydney whose work has appeared in Overland, The Australian Law Journal and elsewhere. He tweets at @ned_hirst.