In a short Guardian article by Eleanor Catton, writing about her Booker prize winning novel, The Luminaries, she describes the process of how she gathered information on her subject, how she immersed herself in a world in which she hoped to set her novel, and then how that process led to her tracking, by using an online site, the astrological movements of the planets and constellations in New Zealand in 1864. Her idea, she states was to try to, “turn the archetypes of the zodiac into human characters and a sequence of horoscopes into a story.” If, like me, you have read The Luminaries, you may remember the astrological charts at the beginning of each part of the novel. You may also have been somewhat perplexed, as I was, by their presence as you read. After all, the novel is a brilliant historical drama, set in the gold fields of 19th century New Zealand. The characters and the situations Catton created were themselves enthralling, without any embellishment of this kind. I overlooked their presence when I read the novel and I still don’t feel my experience was diminished as a result.
Birnam Wood is the first published novel by Eleanor Catton after The Luminaries won the Booker Prize ten years ago. Like her previous novel, readers may be aware that Catton’s title is an allusion, this time to Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, in which the prophecy made to Macbeth by the witches states that, “Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill Shall come against him.” Impossible, Macbeth thinks, until an army bearing branches from Birnam Wood converges on his castle.
Birnam Wood is not a retelling of Macbeth, except maybe in the most vague and symbolic terms: so vague that readers, like my ignoring of the astrological allusions in The Luminaries, might not worry themselves about it if they choose. Birnam Wood is a modern tale, set in 2017, in Thorndike and an imagined national park in New Zealand. Like The Luminaries, the plot revolves around the exploitation of natural resources. In The Luminaries, it was Gold. In Birnam Wood, it is the rare earths that are needed to construct technologies like the mobile phones we now all rely upon. China has control of most of the world’s rare earth resources. Robert Lemoine, a tech billionaire, sees an opportunity to secretly extract trillions of dollars in rare earth materials from the New Zealand national park. He has made his money through drone technology which he will exploit in his quest to extract the minerals. Once he has them, their geopolitical significance will make their provenance moot on the world stage. Until then, he just has to create enough distraction in order to carry out his operation.To the world, Lemoine is in the process of planning to build a doomsday shelter once he acquires land from Sir Owen.
The title of Catton’s novel refers to a left-wing gardening group who call themselves ‘Birnam Wood’. They plant crops on disused land and use them to make some money for the collective to remain operational and distribute them to those in need. Their actions are altruistic to an extent, but also tending towards the illegal in some instances, particularly in their trespassing to achieve their aims. Their ideology is ostensibly anti-Capitalist, but the group is diverse, with members on a spectrum falling between “ideologues” and “do-gooders”. Mira, the founder of the group, feels she falls ideologically in the middle of these extremes. She wants to further the social aims of the group, but she also wants to establish Birnam Wood financially to avoid the uncertainties it has experienced in the past few years. To that end, she travels to Thorndike when she hears of a landslide that has blocked the town at one end from the outside world. The town’s businesses have suffered. There is no through traffic. People have been leaving. There will be little oversight of her presence there.
The situation is particularly ideal because Mira intends to inspect a large property on the edge of the national park owned by Sir Owen Darvish and his wife, Lady Jill Darvish. Sir Owen and Lady Jill have several houses and are not currently staying at the property which they had intended to sell. Sir Owen has only recently been knighted for his involvement in an environmental cause. But Sir Owen is not really a environmentalist. His business is in pest control on rural properties. When Mira learns that the Darvishes aren’t spending time at their property, she sees it as an opportunity to plant a large crop in order secure the collectives future financial security. But Birnam Wood has a horizontal organisation, meaning there is no real leader. Mira tends to lead because she is its founder. When she meets Robert Lemoine on the property and is offered a large sum of money for her and Birnam Wood to establish a crop, she is at first suspicious, then overwhelmed with the opportunity he is offering. But she must persuade the collective to take up the offer. Shelley, a friend who is on the verge of leaving Birnam Wood due to personal issues with Mira, decides to stay. But Tony, an anti-Capitalist ideologue who has only just returned to New Zealand after a five year absence, is livid. He feels the group is selling short its ideals, and leaves again to pursue his own agenda: he intends to prove his investigative credentials by discovering what Lemoine’s intentions at Thorndike really are.
This is all in the opening section of the novel, so no spoilers here. All this is leading to a truly gripping climactic ending. Eleanor Catton has written a story worthy of any thriller. But there is a lot more to get through before the plot really grows some legs and begins to move. I found that the structure of this novel was a little peculiar. The first half is overburdened by exposition that is intermittently interrupted by dramatic set-pieces. So, Mira’s accidental meeting with Lemoine at the Darvish property stands out from what sometimes feels like an overload of information. She initially runs from Lemoine, fearing his intentions and uncertain how he knows her name. Likewise, the Birnam Wood meeting in which Tony’s bitter argument with Amber, another member, sees him leave the group, is a dramatic standout also. But even this feels a little contrived since Tony and Amber’s arguments are an opportunity for more exposition – the author showcasing the ideological underpinnings of her novel, if you will – as each moves from one subject to another. The argument covers a long list of theses and counter theses concerning capitalism, privilege, the environment, misogyny and identity politics, delivered with bitter invective. Tony leaves the group but becomes a major character in the narrative, while Amber’s virtual disappearance from the story makes her position feel like a strawman argument, since Tony’s extreme and rather bleak ideology finds a lot of justification as things play out. I found this heavy use of exposition to be a weakness of the novel and it may discourage some readers.
Nevertheless, if you make it through the first half of the book, you will be rewarded with a tense modern thriller that touches on issues like the exploitation of the environment, on issues of surveillance and privacy, as well as the difficulty of holding the super-rich to account. But Catton doesn’t fall into the trap of creating angels and demons. Each of the characters is well drawn and believable. Lemoine’s backstory, his childhood of emotional neglect, does not seem sentimental, but relevant to our understanding of his character. The shame Tony felt in the criticism of his misguided but well-meaning first article about Mexico tells us something of his motivation: he is not purely altruistic even if he might achieve an altruistic outcome if he succeeds. Tony is ambitious. Mira’s agreement with Lemoine may be made with good intentions, but it is an agreement that will corrupt her. And Shelley’s feelings of inadequacy will taint her actions in her dealings with Mira and Lemoine. In this respect Catton’s plot reveals what is suggested in the early argument between Tony and Amber: that whatever privilege or wealth any character possesses, each is carving out power in their own ways.
This brings me back to the allusion to Macbeth. Catton has insisted that any character in the story might be Macbeth and so a reader may side against any character depending upon their own political or personal affiliations. But if you wanted to draw some broad basic comparisons to Shakespeare’s play, it is possible without going too far. Lemoine is the most identifiable Macbeth, with his wealth and power to control others and command resources. Sir Owen is like King Duncan, even though Lemoine doesn’t kill him. Through a legal, although somewhat underhanded deal, Lemoine intends to gain control of a great deal of his property adjoining the national park to carry out his clandestine operations. And though the Birnam Wood is no army marching on Dunsinane, the presence of the gardeners on the property may well deliver a blow to Lemoine’s plans.
For fans of Catton’s The Luminaries, Birnam Wood will possibly be a must-read. But Catton does not allow the plot of Birnam Wood to unfold as organically as her previous novel, and the nuts and bolts of her intent are sometimes showing. The first half of the book is uneven in quality, as it shifts between long expositions and dramatic sections. It reminded me of novels written for 19th century audiences, which was not surprising when I discovered that Jane Austen’s Emma was a significant influence on her writing style (see the video below) for this novel. I was okay with this – I’m a patient and forgiving reader – but I feel some may not be. Yet get through the first half of the book and you will be rewarded with a tense and satisfying thriller which has a lot to say about current issues. Seriously, the ending is really good!
“Her ambition for Birnam Wood was nothing less than radical, widespread, and lasting social change, which would be entirely achievable, she was convinced, if only people could be made to see how much fertile land was going begging, all around them, every day – and how much more could be accomplished in the world if everybody simply pooled their knowledge and resources – and how arbitrary and absurdly prejudicial the entire concept of land ownership, when divorced from use or habitation, really was! The difficulty, of course, was in knowing whether it was better to raise public consciousness through protest, and risk putting of those very people who were yet to be converted to the cause, or to risk accusations of hypocrisy and try to change the system from within – and here Mira never really gave a settled answer.”