Book review: Birnam Wood

Birnam Wood

Eleanor Catton


Review: Karen Watkins

The title of this book might be familiar: Birnam Wood is a location in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

And, for me, like much of the Bard’s work, this is a playful work of ideas and tongue-in-cheek in parts.

The title is also the name of an idealistic millennial guerrilla group of gardeners who grow veggies on public land and unused private property, sometimes with permission, sometimes without.

The story is set in 2017 in a make-believe remote area of the South Island, New Zealand.

As the story opens, its heroine, Mira Bunting spies a potentially rich new target.

A landslide caused by a spate of shallow earthquakes has buried a stretch of highway, almost completely cutting off the town of Thorndike and cancelling development of a 375-acre plot abutting a national park.

What better place for Mira’s band of subversive farmers to till the soil in relative secrecy. If they get arrested, even better as the millionaire owner, Owen Darvish, is up for a knighthood and the publicity will increase their cause.

The only problem is that this land has already caught the attention of Robert Lemoine, an American billionaire who plans to construct a luxurious bunker where he can wait out the apocalypse, when it arrives.

Lemoine did not make his millions for nothing. He sees the gardeners as cover for a highly illegal rare-earth mining operation that would make him a trillionaire.

Catton brings them all together with these underlying layers in a story that fluctuates between excruciating detail and rapid-fire action sequences.

It’s a dark satire of politics piggybacking onto an eco-techno-thriller of online surveillance and drone warfare.

Her prose is full of long sentences and even longer paragraphs and in fact has no chapters at all.

She gets bogged down in the relationships and tensions between the different characters, their principles, beliefs and psychological development. However, I enjoyed the book.

Eleanor Catton is the author of The Luminaries, published in 2013, a winner of the Man Booker Prize. As a screenwriter she adapted it for television.

Born in 1985 in Canada and raised in New Zealand, she now lives in Cambridge, England.