Eleanor Catton is an extraordinary writer and her second novel Birnam Wood (Granta Publications 2023) is a compelling, complex and layered work of fiction. Her debut The Luminaries won the Booker Prize and I enjoyed Birnam Wood even more – it is more accessible, despite being quite dense and literary.
The story is of a guerrilla gardening collective, Birnam Wood, established in New Zealand by Mira Bunting, a young activist passionate about planting crops in public spaces, abandoned worksites, roadsides, neglected backyards and forgotten parks. For five years, the not-for-profit, philanthropic but unregulated and slightly unorthodox group of friends tries in vain to break even with their experimental venture. When an earthquake triggers a landslide that blocks the main access to a sizeable and empty farm for sale, the group seizes the opportunity to use the land to plant on a large scale without being detected, the absent owners unlikely to notice their greening activities.
But an American billionaire, Robert Lemoine, has already determined to purchase the property to build an indestructible bunker for the end times, and with his infinite resources and connections, the folk of Birnam Wood are no match. When he suggests they work together, it seems incongruous – can they trust his entrepreneurial wealth to allow for an altruistic partnership? Is their ideology too far removed from him and his ilk? And can they even believe what he says? Lemoine has secrets, a plan hidden from everyone but those closest to him.
Birnam Wood is a captivating psychological thriller full of drama, suspense and tension, a wry wit, complex characters and a thought-provoking message about the intentions and connections between different social and collective groups, individual ambition and greed, naivety, betrayal and the most basic human instinct to survive. The ending is an absolutely cataclysmic climax that leaves the reader reaching for more pages only to realise that the story has ended in the middle of the action, a bold decision by Catton that totally pays off. Full of action as well as psychological interpretations, Birnam Wood is a novel that will stay with me.