Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton – 2023

Birnam Wood starts with mellifluous prose revealing the motivations, attitudes, and self-doubts of three characters who started the gardening co-op that gives the novel its name. Birnam Wood was Mira Bunting’s idea, using unused land to grow vegetables, sometimes without the owners’ permission – some of the produce being donated “to the needy”. Shelley Noakes has always been Mira’s 2IC, and she is getting a bit tired of it. Tony Gallo left the co-op soon after it started five years ago, and has now returned, just as changes are afoot. Changes that will significantly alter Birnam Wood, affect all the characters, and turn this literary novel into an eco-thriller.

An encounter between Mira and billionaire Robert Lemoine triggers these changes. They meet when Mira is scouting out private land adjacent to the alpine beech forest of Korowai National Park. An earthquake has blocked the main pass into the area, killing five people, and thwarting the landowner’s plans to subdivide. Mira is excited at the prospect of setting up an illicit operation there – after all, Owen Darvish, the landowner, was about to be knighted for his contributions to conservation, surely he couldn’t object if he found out – they were an eco-collective after all. But as she is leaving, she encounters Robert, and, like Macbeth on the blasted heath, the fates of all are changed.

Birnam Wood explores hypocrisy through all forms of human action, whether that be political, commercial, or environmental. The motives of businesses launching green programmes, those of young women entering into arrangements with older rich men, those of the ultra-rich who are planning bolt holes in remote locations, are all exposed through the storytelling. Robert is charming and generous, but surely one of the “Crypto-fascist dirty tricksters”? His technology is helping the critically endangered Fairy terns in Northland, but it is also being used for less benign purposes.

Mira is walking the thin line between compromise and sell-out. Owen wants to retire in peace with his knighthood, ignoring his wife Jill’s concerns about his new business arrangements – the land is his through marriage, Jill’s family has owned the land for generations. Tony sees through everyone’s deception but his own – he is on a mission to expose wrongdoing, while dreaming “he saw himself on stage, at a podium, collecting an award”, and when he stumbles onto something so much worse than he had imagined “I am going to be so fucking famous.” Robert has a way with IT, and not much concern with other people’s privacy, but his wealth can be used for so many good purposes …

The plotting of Birnam Wood is like dynamite with a long fuse – a slow burn leading to a massive explosion. The Shakespearean allusion of the title is carried throughout the novel, with guilt-ridden women, unexpected coincidences, choruses of doom, themes of deceit and fate, and a bloody denouement. It is set in 2017, pre-pandemic, pre- the catastrophic results of anthropogenic climate change occurring in Aotearoa as I write this review, and it feels the more prescient as a result. Even the name Lemoine resonated for me – it is the name of the IT engineer who was stood down from Google last year for claiming the chatbot he had helped develop had become sentient and was in need of protection.

Birnam Wood has no innocent characters, except perhaps the endangered Fairy terns in Northland, or the few remaining Orange-fronted parakeets who live in Korowai National Park. And readers are implicit in the crimes too, for being consumers, for being pragmatic, for writing book reviews while parts of the North Island are disaster zones, for using their cell phones. To understand the cell phone connection, read Birnam Wood – you’ll feel part of those who’d “known that he was bad from the start. And still they’d courted his business. Still they’d courted his approval, his respect. Still they’d courted him.” A tour de force literary eco-thriller!

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