Birnam Wood

What I learned from… ‘Birnam Wood’ by Eleanor Catton

Birnam WoodAbout the book

Birnam Wood is on the move…

A landslide has closed the Korowai Pass in New Zealand’s South Island, cutting off the town of Thorndike, leaving a sizable farm abandoned. The disaster presents an opportunity for Birnam Wood, a guerrilla gardening collective that plants crops wherever no one will notice. But they hadn’t figured on the enigmatic American billionaire Robert Lemoine, who also has an interest in the place. Can they trust him? And, as their ideals and ideologies are tested, can they trust each other?

What I learned

* A few spoilers ahead *

Although billed as a literary thriller, Birnam Wood is enormously readable. It’s broken into three sections, rather than chapters, in which the Birnam Wood eco-collective in New Zealand engage with a shadowy billionaire Robert Lemoine, whose intentions are malign from the outset. The members of Birnam Wood are painted as mainly credulous, well-meaning environmentalists, so it’s obvious from the start that they will come a cropper.

Catton uses an omniscient narrator and there are no secrets kept from the reader, instead a mounting sense of dread when the ideals of Birnam Wood come up against the naked ambition of Lemoine.

The thriller element works well, leading to an incredibly shocking ending which is unexpected and tonally completely unlike the rest of the novel, which makes it even more surprising.

The thriller plot kept me gripped, but what impressed me the most was the way Catton develops the relationship between Mira and Shelley from Birnam Wood. They feel fully alive, and their motivations are always clear, if misguided. They constantly misunderstand one another, and antagonist Lemoine, which ultimately leads them deeper into trouble. Catton frequently cuts between them, often moving from one character’s perspective and starting the next scene from the perspective of the other (who has been misunderstood). This gives a fully-rounded impression of their relationship.

The observation about Dumbledore, for example, was just the kind of rhetorical nicety that in normal circumstances Mira would have loved to take apart and puzzle over. Shelley had first thought of it two days ago, and she had been rehearsing and refining it in her mind ever since as she waited for an opportunity to come out with it to Mira offhand. She had hoped that it might prompt a philosophical debate about hard choices, that might then flow quite naturally into a discussion about the future management of Birnam Wood – Te Mara Neke, she whispered defiantly, though neither she nor Mira had brought that subject up again, and she had decided not to table it, as Mira had suggested, for the consideration of the wider group – not, at least, until the next full-caucus hui, which was still two and a half months away. Shelley knew already that there would be no point in trying to revive the subject before then, for ever since that conversation, Mira had been nothing but agreeable towards her, going out of her way to voice her appreciation and her sympathy, backing down at once from any point of difference, and steering clear of any issues on which she and Shelley didn’t see entirely eye to eye. At the nightly gatherings she had been uncharacteristically withdrawn, never impolite, but incurious, and distant to the point of disapproval, and several times Shelley had caught her gazing round at the assembled faces with genuine bemusement, almost as though she were seeing Birnam Wood in action for the very first time – seeing them not as herself, perhaps, but as Lemoine.

I’m currently editing a novel with two similarly-close characters, so have learned a great deal from the way Catton handles Mira and Shelley’s relationship.

More about this book

Published in 2023 by Granta Books

Birnam Wood at Granta Books

About ‘What I learned…’

I read anything and everything and think there’s writing inspiration to take from from books of every genre.

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