By Eleanor Catton
A faltering group of guerrilla gardeners, a rapacious techno billionaire, a recently knighted pest-control entrepreneur and an aspiring investigative journalist clash catastrophically in this ironic novel.
The gardeners sometimes ask permission and sometimes appropriate unused land to use for vegetable gardens. The harvest is either shared with partnering landowners, sold or given to the needy.
But without more land and bigger harvests, the gardeners (who call themselves Birnam Wood) can’t be effective.
Robert Lemoine is “a far-sighted, short-selling, risk-embracing kleptocrat, an incarnation of unapologetic zero-sum self-interest” who made his money in drone technology. He has discovered an extremely valuable trace element in the soil of a New Zealand public forest. He plans to put the word out that he is building a survivalist bunker in that area. He’ll use the concept as a cover for hauling out the mineral he leaches from the soil in the forest.
Birnam Wood and Lemoine independently find the perfect site for achieving their goals: an estate owned by Sir Owen Darvish. He inherited it from his father-in-law and has toyed with the idea of small housing development on one piece of the property. When a series of small earthquakes cause an avalanche that closes the road and makes the Darvish property difficult to get to, it’s an even better prospect for both Lemoine and Birnam Wood.
Darvish has recently been knighted. He’s excited that he, an ordinary — and successful — Kiwi pest-control guy — is being made a “Sir” and has a chance to mix with a California billionaire.
Everybody’s dreams center on Darvish’s land.
When Mira Bunting, a Birnam Wood founder, bumps into Lemoine while exploring the property, he sees an opportunity to further disguise his mining operation by encouraging Birnam Wood to garden on the bunker site. He offers $10,000 to see what they can do for six months with a partnership and help incorporating if things go well.
Most members of Birnam Wood are thrilled when Mira unveils Lemoine’s offer at a group meeting. One, Tony Gallo, however is not. He’s spent the last four years traveling and has returned to New Zealand with dreams of becoming an investigative journalist.
He’s sees Lemoine’s offer as co-opting all that Birnam Wood stands for. When his perspective is overruled by the group he storms off, determined to investigate Lemoine and prove to his colleagues how wrong they all are.
This tale is tragic with comic moments. It vividly demonstrates that virtually any group or layer of society can nurture hubris, ambition and greed.
The name “Birnam Wood” comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In the play the three weird sisters tell Macbeth he will never be vanquished until “Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come against him.”
When Malcolm, the eldest son of the murdered King Duncan, advances against Macbeth, he tells his soldiers to cut a bough from a tree and carry it in front of himself as a disguise. It thus appears that the wood is advancing against Macbeth.
The Author: Eleanor Catton (1985 – )
Canadian-born New Zealand author Eleanor Catton wrote her first novel, THE REHEARSAL (2008), as her master’s thesis and then five years later won the 2013 Booker Prize for her second novel, THE LUMINARIES.
That made her the youngest author ever to win the prize (at age 28) and only the second New Zealander.
She was named on the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list in 2023.
She hold’s master’s degrees from The Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington and from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she was an adjunct professor. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Canterbury.
THE LUMINARIES was adapted into a television miniseries with Catton doing the screen writing. THE REHEARSAL was also adapted as a 2016 film of the same name.
She is married to Chicago-born poet Steven Toussaint, whom she met at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. As of 2023, the couple leave in Cambridge, England, with their daughter.
She is a relative of American historian Bruce Catton.