Birnam Wood – book review

Birnam Wood, by Eleanor Catton

Well, I didn’t see that one coming. What an ending! Bloody hell, Eleanor Catton first lulls us with a nice gardening collective and then goes full-on James Bond.

So much has been written about Birnam Wood already and all of it is full of praise: dark and brilliant (the Guardian), an astounding analysis of human psychology (the Spinoff), an explosive climate-change thriller (FT), phenomenal and utterly gripping, electric, spectacular, a complex and absorbing web of human relationships (Various). And yes to all that.

The book seems divided into two. The first half is all about characters and the second is all plot, with Issues (capital I) hanging over the lot. I’ve heard it said that those of us who loved The Luminaries (me! me!) may not love Birnam Wood, so much. They are very different fish, and one can understand why Catton might want some distance from such a phenomenally successful previous book. The Luminaries was all about description for me. I wanted to illustrate this with her description of a sofa here, which I seem to remember rambled exquisitely over several paragraphs, though I might be exaggerating there (and whoever I lent my copy of The Luminaries to will you please bring it back). Her Dickensian attitude of allowing time and space for such detail totally engaged me. Birnam Wood is not a descriptive book. You won’t find yourself reading paragraphs aloud to your significant other or flying off somewhere on a delightful tangent. This is more the story than the telling.

The issues are modern and existential. We have drone surveillance, and an American billionaire building a doomsday bolthole in the Southern alps. He throws money at the gardeners. Are you for or against? The counter-cultural gardening collective don’t appear threatening with their secret compost heaps scattered around the city. Harmless, yes? Knighthoods, nah, phone hacking, definitely not, protection of a native bird, of course, pest control, yes. Experiencing other cultures, yes, except when it is called ‘poverty tourism’, in which case, no. These are ideologies that Catton has her characters grappling with and perhaps we, as readers must also reconsider as we read on. There is a satirical tone aimed at us and I wonder if New Zealanders are quite so naive?

Catton is the omniscient narrator of the story for a while before she drops into a few heads for their outlook. The first few chapters are a lump of character back-story. We are told, for instance, that “Mira was a remorseless critic of her own emotions”. Shelly’s mother (who has no part in the story other than background for her daughter) “appeared to compete with her children in several arenas”. We are told in a bit of detail about Tony’s father’s road not taken into the seminary. There’s a lot of this and nothing happening for a while, with all these details of characters we don’t yet care about, and I made the mistake in thinking this might become a dull book. Hahaha! The tension gathers and the background ideologies of these main players become sharply front of story. Each is programmed to behave according to their character and the slight philosophical misalignments that don’t matter much when they’re planting cabbages in a public space become huge fractures when Birnam Wood meets the billionaire and the stakes get high.

How high? Seriously James-Bondishly high, with secret agendas, big tech, corruption at the highest level, illegal rare earth mining, murderous gun-carrying mercenaries, sex and scandal and intrigue. And right until the end the Birnam Wood dears are still planting their cabbages. Well, just before the end. Then they stop. Woah!

Found this terrific interview with Chris Power, BBC, talking to Eleanor Catton. She says it’s important to “have fun when you write, and to write the book that you wish existed in the world, and that doesn’t exist, yet.” Great advice for any writer.

Author: Cristina Sanders Blog

Novelist, trail runner, book reviewer and blogger.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: