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Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton: A big, brash cerebral snapshot of the modern world

Catton blends literary and commercial fiction in her latest masterful display of storytelling and character set in New Zealand

Birnam Wood
Author: Eleanor Catton
ISBN-13: 978-1783784257
Publisher: Granta
Guideline Price: £20

How do you follow a novel that made you the youngest winner in the history of the Booker Prize? Answer: with another exceptional read. Eleanor Catton’s latest book, Birnam Wood, is literary fiction with the propulsive pace of a thriller, a masterful display of omniscient storytelling, a cautionary tale of friendship soured, a shrewd take on environmental activism and the global existentialist threat, and undoubtedly one of the books of the year.

Everything about Birnam Wood is taut and tightly wound, from the title and epigraph that reference Macbeth, to the carefully curated list of characters, to a plot that unfolds over a relatively short timeframe, to the chosen setting in an isolated region of New Zealand’s south island, the fictional Korowai Pass, where a landslide has closed the roads, meaning that “the town was now contained in all directions but one”. Catton takes such hallmarks of the suspense genre and makes them her own in a story that never flags in over 400 pages, buoyed along by the author’s gift for narrative tension and her fluid, elegant prose.

Birnam Wood opens with an establishing, panoramic shot of the region, like a classic 19th-century novel, before tapering to the perspective of Mira Bunting, head of the anarchist gardening collective Birnam Wood. After the landslide, Mira plans to occupy an abandoned farm – owned by wealthy local couple Sir Owen and Lady Darvish (another nod to Macbeth) – but unbeknown to her, an American billionaire, Robert Lemoine, has got there before her, making a bid for the land under the pretense of building a survivalist bunker to see out the apocalypse. What follows is a tense, thrilling story that puts a small cast of highly contemporary characters under extreme pressure to explosive results.

The omniscient third perspective suits this type of narrative. Catton deploys the authorial voice with aplomb, allowing the reader to see more than the characters’ limited viewpoints, to appreciate their weaknesses, to anticipate how such traits might be exploited. It also leaves room for plenty of sharp comic asides. Birnam Wood is a tragedy, but like all good tragedies, it contains bitter flashes of humour.


Mira and her second-in-command, Shelley, have bonded over Shelley’s mother’s reticence about their work: “At Birnam Wood ‘Shelley’s mum’ had become a kind of shorthand for the many evils of the baby-boomer generation.” Elsewhere, returning traveller Tony gives a PhD-length summary of his backpacking adventures. Billionaire Robert thinks about replying “unsubscribe” to the long-winded emails of a colleague. A wonderful set piece around a homemade bowl of soup sees two equally correct, and equally annoying, factions of the collective get into an argument about identity politics. Throughout these brightly evocative scenes, Catton is busy setting up more twists, tightening the screws.

Tony, for all his self-mythologising, turns out to be a great foil to Robert’s machinations. Each of the main characters – Mira, Shelley, Tony, Robert, Lady Darvish – are intelligent, enterprising and physically strong, which raises the stakes considerably. There is the sense that anyone could win in the end. Unusually for a literary novel, the book is action-packed, which is to say full of compelling events and conflicts, but also in the literal sense of how the characters act, the choices they make when under pressure, the consequences of these choices at once surprising and fateful.

Catton is the author of The Luminaries, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize and a global bestseller. Her debut novel, The Rehearsal, won the Betty Trask Prize, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Dylan Thomas Prize, and longlisted for the Orange Prize. As a screenwriter, she has adapted The Luminaries for television, and Jane Austen’s Emma for feature film. Born in 1985 in Canada and raised in New Zealand, she now lives in Cambridge.

With each of her novels to date, Catton has been preternaturally good at finding the sweet spot between literary and commercial fiction, an heir to writers like Donna Tarrt and Jeffrey Eugenides. Her insight into character is similarly astute, the judgments swiftly rendered: “[Mira] preferred the company of men. Her favoured style of conversation was impassioned argument that bordered on seduction, and although it was distasteful, not to mention tactically unwise, to admit that one enjoyed flirtation, she never felt freer, or funnier, or more imaginatively potent than when she was the only woman in the room.”

Ultimately though, this is an unapologetically political novel, more concerned with the abuses of power of government and elite societies than the navel-gazing of any particular character. Catton has said that she wanted to explore the contemporary political moment without being partisan. She has more than achieved this with Birnam Wood, a big, brash cerebral novel of multiple perspectives, a snapshot of the modern world, to paraphrase Macbeth’s witches, where fair is foul and foul is fair.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts