by Elaine Lau
Ten years after The Luminaries catapulted her to literary stardom, Man Booker prize-winning New Zealand author Eleanor Catton returns with Birnam Wood, a literary contemporary thriller that’s intelligent and zeitgeisty, but also incredibly gripping and entertaining.
Birnam Wood has it all – a cast of well-formed characters, a pacey, compelling plot, and writing that’s full of verve. The story is set in present-day New Zealand, and the Shakespeare-inspired moniker is the name of a guerilla gardening collective headed by Mira Bunting and her sensible sidekick, Shelley Noakes. The activist group grows food on unused land using scavenged materials, and what they don’t consume they sell. But five years on, the collective is still far from being financially self-sufficient.
When earthquakes trigger a landslide at the Korowai National Park, local entrepreneur Sir Owen Darvish and his wife Jill are forced to temporarily vacate their nearby farm. For Mira, the landslide is an opportunity, and she heads down to check out the place as a potential planting site. While there, Mira is caught unawares by mysterious tech mogul Robert Lemoine who tells her that he has secretly purchased the property from the Darvishes, and plans to build a doomsday bunker on the land. Intrigued by Mira and her efforts, the American billionaire unexpectedly offers to contribute $100,000 to Birnam Wood while also allowing them to cultivate the land. However, when Mira’s former flame and aspiring journalist Tony Gallo hears about this arrangement, he becomes immediately suspicious of Lemoine’s motives and sets out to investigate.
This satirical, social novel holds a mirror up to society with its examination of several issues including the prioritisation of profits over planet and the corresponding consequences; the prevalence and abuse of tracking technology; and the pervasive obsession with self-mythologising. It is replete with astute observations and wry commentary but stops short of being preachy or didactic. Catton actually draws from real people and events – for instance, Lemoine is partly modelled after billionaire Peter Thiel, whom the New Zealand government granted citizenship after spending a mere 12 days in the country.
But this is also an intimate novel where perspectives alternate between Mira, Shelley, the Darvishes, Lemoine, and Tony. Catton has an uncanny talent for writing interiority, and the result is multi-dimensional characters that practically leap off the page. We discover that, for instance, Mira and Lemoine are actually more alike than would seem. Both are conceited – Mira “was long accustomed to being thought the liveliest and most original thinker of any company in which she found herself”, whereas Lemoine “loved to wonder at his own motivations, to marvel at his own eccentric mind, to evaluate himself in the second person, and then even more deliciously, in the third”. The crusading millennial and the conniving billionaire are equally Machiavellian in their approach to obtaining what they want.
I thoroughly enjoyed this darkly comic novel with its Shakespearean overtones, vivid characters and intricate plotting punctuated by zingy dialogue. I became invested from the get-go and couldn’t wait to find out what happened next as the story built to a heart-thumping crescendo. Catton has written an immersive story that you can really sink your teeth into but that also asks urgent questions about the way we are today.
Birnam Wood is available in-store and online. Special thanks to Meora at Pansing Distribution for the review copy of the book.