Ten years after her Booker Prize winner, “The Luminaries,” Eleanor Catton delivers another bold, ambitious novel. “Birnam Wood” is a grand, chilling thriller tightly bound by inescapable concerns. While “The Luminaries” is a steady, slow burn, “Birnam Wood” moves at a faster clip with arguably higher stakes. Make no mistake: It’s a book that grips you by the throat until its final paragraph. Catton successfully scorches the earth with her prose.
New Zealanders Mira Bunting and Shelley Noakes are at an impasse. It’s 2017, several years past the swell of the Occupy movement. The two college dropouts have reached the limits of their guerrilla gardening project, Birnam Wood. Named after an ominous and questionably sentient forest in “Macbeth,” Birnam Wood is a collective of renegade gardeners who glean free equipment and materials that are put to use in neglected and unsanctioned patches of land. Their mission is one of mutual aid, but after several years, the work has become rote and thankless. Sick of being broke and in debt, Shelley is eager for a fresh start, but before she can move on, Mira finds an unlikely new home base of operations.
An earthquake creates a roadblock that isolates a farm bordered by Korowai National Park. The land had been earmarked for development as a subdivision; however, the natural (or is it?) disaster has scrapped those plans. Instead, the newly knighted owner Sir Owen Darwish and his doting wife, Jill, silently make plans to sell his property to Robert Lemoine, an American billionaire (whose money comes from drones) with ostensible designs to create a doomsday bunker. If this sounds familiar, you’re right. Catton draws from entrepreneur Peter Thiel’s plan to survive a possible End Days scenario in New Zealand. If “The Luminaries” carried the tension of a New Zealand sacked by 19th-century colonizers hungry for gold, “Birnam Wood” pulses with a fraught contemporary imperialism centered around the notion of survival — and the conquest of rare earth minerals.
While scouting out the farm, Mira runs into Lemoine, whose “tracksuit was so ordinary and unassuming, and so simply cut, that Mira felt absolutely certain it was more expensive than any garment she owned.” She spins a story to explain her presence, but her usual bravado falls flat. Mira admits that she’s a trespasser. Oddly enough, Lemoine makes a proposition. “I’ll stay out of your way if you stay out of mine.” In time, Lemoine makes a gift of $10,000 to Birnam Wood with the promise of $100,000 to grow a cooperative farm on the property. Their collaboration is a cheeky secret from the Darwishes, whom Lemoine dismisses as fussy nuisances.
Flush with cash, Mira returns home to share the news. Unexpectedly, a former comrade-in-arms with unresolved feelings for Mira turns up at the meeting. Tony had left the collective years earlier with the hopes of making a name for himself as a journalist in Mexico. After burning bridges with Mira on their final night together, he returns empty-handed. All he has to show for himself are his stint teaching abroad and tedious blog posts (“spit takes” as opposed to hot takes). With the fervor of a jilted lover, he rants about capitalism instead of Mira, but the collective freezes him out. The prospect of a financial infusion revives the collective’s energy. Tony ends up drowning his sorrows in the pub instead of eagerly joining along with plans to occupy the farm.
From here on, little feels certain or safe. The literary novel binds itself with a genre thriller in Catton’s hands. Catton brings to mind authors like Sarah Waters and Susanna Clarke, who defy easy genre to create books big enough to contain literary style, complex characters, and expansive social issues. Free to play with form, Catton winds methodically through the minds of her characters. Tony rants, “to use words like good and evil, or not even evil, just good and bad, when it comes to people’s behaviour, or their lifestyle choices, or their forms of self-expression — their freedom — that’s, like, totally taboo.” What follows is an attack on structural intellectual prisons.
Catton includes many lengthy dialogues of this nature which sometimes feel indulgent but also ring true to the characters’ personalities. In a time of omnipresent connectivity, it’s very hard to be heard. The yearning for connection afflicts nearly all the characters in “Birnam Wood,” and the novel’s action catapults forward based on these intense direct conversations — some grounded in sincere connection but many disingenuous.
Along with this steady propulsion is a deep relationship — insidious or benevolent — to the land. That ecological awareness is part of a surging undercurrent that runs through Catton’s deliberate pacing. The land is as much a vivid character as the people who exploit it. Entwined with these attachments is the pervasive presence of surveillance which looms over these characters. Technology erases privacy and autonomy as drones track movement and cellphones conceal or erase data. Identity blurs as characters rapidly lose control of their fate. The novel’s spellbinding conclusion is an excoriation of greed. Catton illustrates the ways we are all complicit in environmental pillage. Just as Macbeth never imagined the woods could signal doom, nor do we see how tethered we are to a system that doesn’t hold our best interests at heart. Although Catton inserts a sly dig at book criticism (“[N]obody tended to ask any questions of a gush”) through a psychological profile, I’ll unabashedly state that “Birnam Wood” is a brash, unforgettable novel.
By Eleanor Catton
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 432 pp., $28
Lauren LeBlanc is an incoming board member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her Substack newsletter is https://laurenleblanc.substack.com/.