Book review: Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton

Humour and fast-paced plotting from the author of the Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries

Birnam Wood pits a group of guerilla gardeners against a billionaire in a New Zealand national park. Mira Bunting is the de facto leader of the Birnam Wood group, who cultivate unused gardens and public spaces with food which they sell or donate.

She has scoped out a property in a national park which she thinks will be deserted after seeing media reports about its owner. However, when she arrives, she encounters billionaire Robert Lemoine, who is apparently buying the property with a view to building an escape bunker.

However, Lemoine has (even) more sinister motives, and he decides to allow Birnam Wood to use the land, neglecting to mention that he hasn’t signed off on the purchase, both because he thinks it will be a smokescreen, and because he finds it amusing.

Meanwhile the Birnam Wood members have all kinds of internal dramas of their own. Mira’s friend and collaborator, Shelley Noakes, wants to leave the group and the home they share, but hasn’t got up the courage to tell her. The man who is in love with Mira, Tony Gallo, has returned from living abroad, but hasn’t let Mira know he’s back. The owners of the land think they have got one over on the billionaire by using his name to leverage their own interests.

The group move to the national park to begin cultivating the property. Tony, still estranged from Mira and hoping to find a purpose, thinks he might move from blogger to investigative journalist. He digs deeper on Lemoine and, without telling the group, travels to the national park to unravel what he’s really up to. And from there the misunderstandings build.

Everyone in Birnam Wood is basically good, (apart from the billionaire, of course he’s bad, and yet strangely attractive to some of the Birnam Wood members). However, they are each engaging in small acts of deception for selfish or petty or self-righteous reasons. This leads to consequences which are comical but ultimately devastating.

The characterisation is brilliant. There is great satirisation of the Birnam Wood group, but it’s done from a place of affection. As someone who has sat in draughty halls going through the democratic processes of progressive groups, I cringed knowingly at the endless digressions and delays that characterise the smallest decision, and the way interpersonal dynamics can sway the room.

Catton also captures the paradoxes in such projects. Shelley is a clever administrator who sees that the group could have a business model as a non-profit, while Mira, who is the most ideologically pure, is also doggedly entrepreneurial and willing to break the rules for her own ends.

As someone who reads a lot of crime fiction, I often feel I know where a story is going, but a few pages from the end of Birnam Wood I still had no idea what was about to happen. The ending manages to be surprising, fitting and pleasingly ironic.

I received a copy of Birnam Wood from the publisher via NetGalley.
View Birnam Wood on Goodreads

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