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Book Review:

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton

Henry Opina, Volunteer at Kett's Books Published: 02 March 2024

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Black and white book cover of Birnham Wood
Photo credit: Granta

Billionaires, climate activism and sketchy journalism. It’s not fun to talk about - so why do I get endless entertainment from reading a novel centred around a collective of “guerrilla gardeners” and their tenuous alliance with Catton’s stand-in for Jeff Bezos?

When a landslide in New Zealand leaves a sizable chunk of land abandoned, Mira Bunting sees an opportunity. Birnam Wood, her guerilla gardening group of philanthropic sometimes-criminals could secure the future of their operation by occupying it. Unfortunately, American billionaire Robert Lemoine has already snatched it up for his end-of-the-world bunker. When he catches Mira on his property, he senses an unlikely kindred spirit in her and suggests paying Birnam Wood thousands to work on his land. But with so many clashing ideologies, can anyone be trusted?

The book is marketed as a ‘gripping psychological thriller’ by its publisher. For much of the book, I couldn’t see how this was true in any way and a little part of me hoped that it wouldn’t come to be. After all, I was having the most amazing time with its characters, each with rich internal and inter-political lives, that to interrupt our getting to know these characters with any inciting plot thread at any time would be too soon. Take the main character, Mira. She makes an amazing first impression. Her consciously competent charisma and her socialist, eco-conscious values are not two separate facets of her personality. Mira decided from a young age that she can be anyone she wants to be. Her chameleon-like ability to assimilate and then excel is the reason for both her successes and her failures as a person and the head of the collective. And then there’s the billionaire, Robert Lemoine. He is, at the same time, full of surprises and everything you’d expect. He carries himself with the charm of anyone who has no reason to prove anything. My advice is to let yourself feel whatever gut instincts he evokes, especially the ones you don’t expect.

Eleanor Catton has a fond obsession with the contradictions that make up people’s identities. Mira is not the only character at war with herself. Who are we when push comes to shove? That’s where I was wrong to be so worried about the story interrupting our getting to know these characters. Catton crafts the perfect scenarios, scenes and conflicts to bring out these characters’ truest selves. As we’ll find out, that sometimes means their most deceptive. In trust, as much as all of these headstrong characters are in a struggle to prove that they are right, Birnam Wood is all about compromise: what it means to do it and what it means to be compromised. It’s a reality that we live every day.

I had such a great time with this novel. It’s a conversation piece if I ever heard one, steeped in the anxieties of our times. What makes Birnam Wood stand out is the masterful sense of dimension she gives these discussions, weaving together plot, structure and character beautifully. You’re immersed in every scene in this brilliantly paced novel and Catton has such a sharp, distinctive voice. I recommend this book to anyone who loves well-crafted contemporary literature. Birnam Wood is a moment-defining book, not because it will change the world but because it so sharply captures it.

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