Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton

I didn’t manage to finish reading Catton’s last book The Luminaries but this book is sold as a thriller and I love thrillers and I like eco-lit, which this is, and so thought it might be more readable/accessible. It was.

I can’t quite make up my mind if Catton was parodying thrillers or eco-lit because we have all the characters here that you might expect. A billionaire that is a baddie right from the start, an older man who has just been awarded a Knighthood for services to conservation when he owns a pest control company (she is having a laugh here), a wanna-be journalist who has a rant at the last meeting and leaves the group, and Shelley who is always second, does all the work and gets none of the praise for it.

Birnam Wood is an eco group that grows fruit and vegetables on parcels of land they do not own – guerilla gardening on a slightly larger scale, in New Zealand. Mira, the leader of the group, spots a plot of land that seems to be abandonned, private and ripe for developing only when she gets there she meets the billionaire Lemoine. He has mining works going on that are illegal and needs to protect his investments at all costs.

I have tried to work out why Catton chose the name Birnam Wood and this article is helpful. If everyone can be a villain, then everyone can be a Macbeth with ambitions or be tempted and in this book they are. The journalist is tempted by the thought of getting an expose based on the mining that Lemoine’s company is undertaking, Owen Darvish the owner of the land is tempted by the Knighthood, Shelley by being the leader of the group and so on. In fact just like in Macbeth, Birnam Wood does move because it is the name of the group and they move about a five hour drive from Christchurch to get to the tract of land they will grow on as trespassers.

The thriller part really gets going about two thirds of the way into the book. I found myself reading faster and faster to find out how things ended and it is pretty explosive.

The whole book reads as if it is a last gasp at trying to get people to take notice of what is happening around us and tries to explain why it feels like nothing is changing or being done about it. No one comes out of this well. We have landslides, fires and floods and yet people sit around arguing about whether ‘intersectionality is bullshit’. (I don’t even know what that really means!) The book is fun way of letting us know that we are marching towards the end, wondering if anyone will move against the ‘Kings’ of today or whether extinction is the next step.

Catton’s writing is very good, particularly her sentences. I always marvel at those who can control long sentences and there are many in this book.

This business about the radiometric survey, for instance: Sir Owen should have been relieved to learn that this so-called journalist – a blogger and a nobody, for goodness’ sake – had plainly begun his investigations well before they’d hosted the Mulloys, which meant that they couldn’t possibly bear any responsibility for whatever it was that he might or might not have found out about their agreement with Lemoine.


One of the big themes in Macbeth is betrayal, alongside loyalty, and there is a fair amount of it in this story. The above quote has a touch of betrayal but the big betrayal is of the planet by us.

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