Birnam Wood: A Novel
“so layered and deft—and, ultimately, engaging—this book seems certain to advance Catton’s already considerable reputation as a major literary talent.”
The Luminaries, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2013, was an international bestseller as well as the rare literary thriller that satisfied on both the “literary” and “thriller” fronts. A remarkably brisk 850-page read, the novel secured its author, Eleanor Catton, a measure of acclaim (at 28, she was the youngest Booker winner ever) that might daunt any writer, even one so preternaturally gifted. Instead, following a ten-year break between novels, Catton delivers Birnam Wood, a story nearly as intricately plotted as The Luminaries, and one so layered and deft—and, ultimately, engaging—this book seems certain to advance Catton’s already considerable reputation as a major literary talent.
Given the latest book’s title, a reader would be excused from seeking Shakespearian traces throughout. While there’s little in the way of overlap narratively with Macbeth, Birnam Wood is relentless in its depiction of the moral and psychological injury that comes of excessive ambition. Situated in contemporary New Zealand, the novel’s Birnam Wood is an activist gardening collective, one ostensibly dedicated to maintaining a few plots in officially sanctioned spaces, but whose actual objective is to plant “without permission on public or unattended lands.” A sort of Green-ish Occupy initiative, Birnam Wood has subversive and vaguely anarchic designs.
The group’s founder is Mira Bunting, a 29-year-old striver who recognizes her grand plans for the collective—notoriety, influence, and maybe even profit—have stalled. Buoyed by a shaky bravado and a penchant for excusing herself from inconvenient stricture, Mira is plagued by self-absorption, unsure if her interest in gardening is means or end. “One of the reasons that horticulture held such a strong appeal for Mira was that it offered her a respite from [her] habit of relentless interior critique.” When a disastrous, seemingly unaccountable landslide blocks a mountain pass a few hours south of Birnam Wood’s base, leaving a large tract of national park-abutting territory essentially isolated, Mira senses opportunity and begins scouting the area as a potential site for a massive expansion of the collective’s operations.
She’s not the only one interested in the place. During Mira’s initial visit to the area—an act of trespassing she characteristically rationalizes—she is confronted by Robert Lemoine, a fortyish tech billionaire who, it seems, is purchasing a large parcel of the land and has returned to check on his acquisition. Apparently intrigued by Mira’s account of Birnam Wood’s mission, Lemoine indicates an interest in providing funding for the collective and granting cover for its operations. Stoical and calculating, seeking leverage above all, Lemoine is practiced in the art of misdirection: “[He] loved to present as an enigma. It made his self-dissections all the sweeter to know that he was outwardly inscrutable, a puzzle to which only he would ever hold the key.”
He also has little notion of boundaries, possessing an aptitude—and appetite—for surveillance honed during his term as CEO of a drone manufacturing company. No aspect of the lives of others is off-limits to him; as he moves forward with his plans to develop the tract in question, he entangles Mira and Birnam Wood in the layers of subterfuge he has arranged, while cynically assuming everyone else is as invested in duplicity as he is. “[He] loved to make a study of deceptions, no matter how insignificant or glancing they might seem; in fact, he had often found it was the most inconsequential-seeming falsehoods that tended to betray the most about a person’s character, exposing their petty vanities, their hubris, their blind spots.”
Unexpected disaster strikes as Mira and Birnam Wood, emboldened by Lemoine’s largesse, press forward with their “guerilla” operations, eventually jeopardizing Lemoine’s murky endeavors. And while the cards begin falling with a fairly rigid inevitability, the true driver behind the downward spiral is the fallibility of the human beings in the story. Nearly everyone in Birnam Wood—not merely Mira and Robert, but also the lesser players Catton patiently, fully brings to life—is activated by measures of self-justification in which ideals outstrip actions and every longing is subject to spin. No motive is untainted, every decision teems with broadly ulterior consideration.
The marvel of Catton’s story is the breadth and profundity with which choices reverberate, extend, and, ultimately, warp, as characters engage in canny scheming: to compromise, to prevail, to do harm, to protect. As the fabrications and deceptions deepen, the novel’s terrain becomes increasingly dangerous.
The tension becomes unsustainable. While Lemoine’s intrigues remain mostly constrained by his instinctive self-control, Mira retreats into placating reflection as her actions spiral outward. “She was still trying, desperately—and uselessly—to find somebody more monstrous and despicable than her,” she reflects at one point, a convoluted instance of Mira’s need both to indulge self-loathing and discover some way of outpacing others. No one snatches the crown, and no crones offer warning, but Catton certainly weaves a type of magic.