Eleanor Catton was awarded The Man Booker Prize for The Luminaries in 2013.
Birnam Wood is her follow-up to that award-winning work. In it, Robert Lemoine, an American billionaire, wants to build a bolthole on a plot of land in Thorndike, New Zealand. It is land that has been taken off the market due to a recent landslide. Lemoine invites Mira and her guerrilla gardening group Birnam Wood to work his land.
This all sounds feasible, but one of the major problems with the novel is the likeability of the characters. There is Mira herself, “aged 29, and a horticulturalist by training”. She wants “lasting social change”. She is also a bit of a scavenger in her green agenda, and collects “clippings from hair salons”, and “old tights to fit over the heads of cabbage”. Mira’s sidekicks are Shelley and Tony who “felt similar exasperations with the state of public discourse in New Zealand”, a country which is described as “devoutly Catholic, conservative, and very strict”.
Tony is just back from Mexico. He wants to be an investigative journalist, but worries after some trolling online whether his voyage of discovery was really “a form of inauthentic tourism”. Tony, sadly, is insufferable. “He had found himself increasingly at odds with the prevailing orthodoxies of the contemporary feminist left.” He’s also trying to deal with the romantic fall-out of sleeping with Mira the night before he left for Mexico.
Birnam Wood as a group is at a crossroads. It is made up of “ideologues” and “do-gooders”. The group’s acceptance of the billionaire’s money for his “doomsteading” is not credible. He’s described as “someone who’s seen a few too many James Bond movies in his life”, and is just about as two-dimensional.
The omniscient narration proves more of a hindrance to the flow of the story and there’s a Scooby-Doo mania to the carry-on, but without enough of the shenanigans of the cartoon. Birnam Wood is very po-faced.
There are lots of digs at “vapid neoliberal bullshit”, “the spectre of late capitalism”, “technological imperialists”, and “metadata millenarians”. Imagine The Famous Five move to New Zealand and become embroiled in eco-politics. Instead of lashings of ginger ale, there are surveillance drones and characters who display “zero-sum self-interest”.
The title Birnam Wood comes from one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, Macbeth, but this novel, unfortunately, does not hold a candle to its Jacobean predecessor.
‘Birnam Wood’ by Eleanor Catton, Granta Books, €18.75