Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Readers will come to this new book by Eleanor Catton with memories of her winning the Booker Prize in 2013 with her novel The Luminaries.  Aged just 28, she was the youngest-ever winner; and The Luminaries was a complex and lengthy historical mystery.  Ten years later, Birnam Wood is a different kind of novel altogether – it is a brilliant psychological thriller with allusions to Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  The play Macbeth is essentially concerned with greed and the lust for power and how inevitably their pursuit leads to tragedy – and the narrative of Birnam Wood also ends in a tragedy which is as shocking as it is unexpected.

The novel is also a sharp and incisive satire of capitalism and the political left and, by extension, of the arguments each uses to defend its position.  For example, ‘intersectionality’ [the theory that different aspects of one’s personality overlap to create patterns of oppression and discrimination] is described as ‘but the point of intersectionality isn’t to learn how to transcend our differences, or eliminate them, … it’s about shoring up your brand, cornering the market, everyone out for themselves’ [106].

Birnam Wood is an ‘activist collective’ and now in 2016 [when the novel is set] the collective is ‘a start-up, a pop-up, the brainchild of ‘creatives’; it was organic; it was local’ [16].  The de-facto leader of the collective Mira Bunting begins to see herself as a force to be reckoned with and Birnam Wood is once again ‘urgent, righteous and necessary’.  This belief in the collective’s righteousness takes Mira to a sheep station located in the foothills of the Korowai ranges where a recent earthquake closed the pass and effectively cut off the property.  This is an ideal location for Birnam Wood to do its work – that is, to trespass and plant without permission their perennials, annuals, crops, vegetables on land belonging to someone else.

But Shelley Noakes – the administrative heart of Birnam Wood – wants out: ‘out of the suffocating moral censure, the pretended fellow feeling, the constant obligatory thrift, … and out of her role as the sensible, dependable, predictable sidekick’ [16-17].

Inserting themselves into what could be seen simply as a contretemps between two friends and colleagues stride two men – Tony Gallo a young highly intelligent insurrectionist who in his master’s thesis critiqued the ‘anti-humanism of post-structuralist political thought’; and Robert Lemoine an American billionaire with public and private plans for the sheep station.  Lemoine is a ‘far-sighted, short-selling, risk-embracing kleptocrat, a radical misfit, a genius, a tyrant, a status-symbol survivalist’ [79] who is prepared to contribute funds to Birnam Wood.  But for Tony who believes ‘the billionaire class undermines solidarity by its very existence’, in accepting Lemoine’s money, Birnam Wood would be getting into bed with the enemy.

The seeds of the tragedy lying in wait for the protagonists are now planted – much as Birnam Wood begin planting their crops in the grounds of the sheep station.  Lemoine in turn is preparing to build his bunker – his bolthole – in readiness for the end of days.  But this masks his far more nefarious intention which, when it comes to fruition, will expand his wealth beyond measure – and, in so doing, will defraud the New Zealand government and its people.  Lemoine is without doubt a psychopath and ‘his wealth, his mystique, his protean curiosity, his impenetrable charm’ were ‘calculated acts of revenge against everyone who had deceived him’ [227].

Tony intuits that Lemoine’s motives are not as simple as he pretends, and is determined to expose him; and, with self-awareness, Tony knows that if he can do that, he will be famous.  In keeping with the references to Macbeth, greed and the lust for power and their corruptive influence touch everyone.  As he begins to lose control and fearing exposure, Lemoine devises ‘a solution so perfect, he could hardly believe it hadn’t been his endgame all along’ [397].  His solution is to paint Tony as ‘a disaffected, sexually frustrated, isolated young man, socially downgraded and rejected from a group he once belonged to’ who is prepared to massacre all the members of Birnam Wood as a consequence of their betrayal of their core values.

Through the novel, Eleanor Catton takes aim with sharp social satire at the machinations and shifting allegiances within small groups and large; and uses her capacity for language to reflect back to us the nature of society– and specifically of the New Zealand society.

Birnam Wood is a complex and consistently engaging novel – written with intelligence and a subtle humour.  Much of the novel satirises our delusions, our false beliefs and our values; and is always entertaining and often tense and thrilling.  It is a book well worth the reading.

Birnam Wood


by Eleanor Catton


ISBN 978 178378 427 1

$32.99; 432pp

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