Friday, June 23, 2023

Eleanor Catton's Birnam Wood

"Birnam Wood was defined in carefully apolitical language as a grassroots community initiative that planted sustainable organic gardens in neglected spaces and featured a commitment to help those in need."

But that's not all it is.

Mira Bunting is the founder and main figure of Birnam Wood, a guerrilla gardening collective in New Zealand. Four years ago, the emphasis was on the guerrilla: anti-capitalist, rebellious. Now most of their vegetable plots are planted with the agreement of the owners, and the produce is shared out.

Part of the reason for the practicality is Shelley Noakes. Shelley rather worships Mira, but also is beginning to feel used, and at the very start of the novel she decides to sleep with Tony Gallos, Mira's ex-one-night-stand as a way to assert her independence. Tony's just appeared on the scene after teaching in Mexico for four years, and Shelley knows perfectly well Mira and Tony have unresolved issues.

Meanwhile there's been an earthquake in the Korowai National Park that killed five people and blocked a major road. This means that an old farm at 1606 Korowai Pass Road is now isolated. It's owned by Owen Darvish and his wife Lucy, and he's just been knighted for services to conservation even though he's the owner of a pest control company. (One of the things he kills is invasive species.) Mira thinks here is the grand coup that Birnam Wood needs: guerrilla gardening on the Darvish estate. Birnam Wood will go to Dunsinane. (1606 is likely the year in which Shakespeare's MacBeth was first performed.)

But one other figure has seen possibilities near Korowai National Park; that's Robert Lemoine, an American billionaire. His money is from a drone startup, but he envisions a different sort of financial coup in New Zealand.

That's our major players lined up. The first two-thirds of the novel is getting to know them, individually and in relation to one another; the last third is quite the thriller as their different goals conflict and their unknowing about each other gets resolved. The conflict is political and environmental.

The novel's at times funny. When I saw Eleanor Catton here a couple of months ago, she read from a passage with one of Tony Gallos' rather over-the-top rants. The audience--the book was brand-new at that point, and almost nobody had read it--were first absorbed in Tony's righteous anger, then laughed nervously, then laughed out loud. Catton can pull that sort of thing off. 

Tony's still kind of a hero, even if he only has the vaguest sense of reality, and the book ends with him:

" that somebody would see it, so that somebody would notice, so that somebody would care, and as the fire began to blaze and crackle up the ancient trees around him, Tony prayed that somebody would come to put it out."

So a pretty fun novel with some serious themes. I did, however, feel that the American billionaire drifted in from a different sort of novel (or film), likely one involving James Bond. I would also say I still think The Luminaries is the one to read. (Though I haven't read her first, The Rehearsal).

Another book actually from my 20 Books of Summer list!

And, as it turns out, it's my first Big Book of Summer. When I signed up for the challenge, I didn't have a copy of the book in hand and didn't realize, but as it turns out it's 432 pages and so qualifies. I still hope to read a few other monsters. Thanks to Sue and Cathy for hosting!


  1. A different kind of story but not for me.

    1. I liked this, but The Luminaries is more big Victorian mystery (like Wilkie Collins, say) and that appealed to me more. This was good, but contemporary thrillers aren't exactly my thing.

  2. Don't you love it when one book counts for two reading challenges? ;D

  3. Congratulations on finishing your first book for the Big Book Summer Challenge, Reese! I've been hearing about this book, and your review makes it sound intriguing. I'll share your review around social media - thanks for adding the link to the challenge page. I also wanted to let you know that I've chosen your blog as my Blog of the Month for my own blog's monthly newsletter. It should go out on July 1, so I hope you get some new visitors from it!

    2023 Big Book Summer Challenge

    1. Very cool, thanks! Glad you enjoyed the review and thanks for the upcoming plug and looking forward to your newsletter. I'm not super-active on other social media, but I just followed you on Twitter.

  4. I love the title, but not entirely sure I love the premise. Maybe...good review though.

  5. I think I have this one on my TBR but based on your review I will make sure it is. But I know what you mean about big books being monsters. I've read several of them this summer and each one is daunting to me.

    Here is my most recent big book I Have Some Questions for You