Eleanor Catton: Birnam Wood (2023, Granta Books) 4 stars

Review of 'Birnam Wood' on 'Goodreads'

5 stars

This fascinating thriller takes its name from a forest featured in Shakespeare’s play McBeth. Like that famous play, this novel is populated with flawed individuals whose ambitions prove hard to balance with their morals. Accidents, deceptions, and cross purposes make for a complex, exciting plot.

In Eleanor Catton’s new novel, Birnam Wood is the name of a small nonprofit organization that seeks to plant crops in unused spaces, sometimes with permission, and sometimes not. There is certainly some lawlessness and trespassing going on, but the group’s members see it as a necessary evil in their mission to help those in need and to work for a more fair society. Before I read this, I was not aware of guerilla gardening.

There are four main characters in this book, plus two important supporting roles. Mira and Shelley are prominent members of Birnam Wood, and their relationship is complicated. They’ve been close for a long time, but at this juncture, Shelley is beginning to feel that it’s time for her to move on, and Mira is aware of this, and dreading it. To this end, Mira is striving towards her goal to prove that Birnam Wood can make a go of it, and eventually start paying the staff. However, for Shelley, this is not the only ambition. Shelley would also like to move out of Mira’s shadow.

A third important character is Tony, an aspiring journalist who is returning to the Birnam Wood fold after being abroad for a few years. Since he’s been away, and not experienced the hard work and frustrations of the past, he is appalled at the group’s newest venture, which he believes goes against all their principles.

This new venture involves a billionaire named Robert Lemoine, a middle-aged man who is buying a large swath of land to build a doomsday bunker–or so he says. Robert is a fascinating character. We don’t know how he got so rich, or exactly how he acquired his particular skill set. He meets Mira by accident, and immediately gives her permission to farm part of the land he is buying. Furthermore, he philanthropically gives her a lot of money, immediately.

The two other characters in this story are Sir Darvish and his wife, Lady (Jill) Darvish. It’s their land that is being sold. They have a good marriage, and Lady Darvish is proud of her beknighted husband, though she’s the smarter, more capable one.

When Mira reports back to the group about Robert’s proposal, everyone is impressed with her find, except Tony. He leaves the group, and it becomes his ambition to find out as much as he can about Robert Lemoine.

So, Birnam Wood sets up a camping site, and gets to work. Robert charms and wins over these new young friends. Tony googles, makes phone calls, and spies on them. Meanwhile, Sir Darvish becomes curious and pays a visit.

At this point, there are a couple plot twists, and things happen quickly. Both thought-provoking and riveting, this novel would make for an excellent discussion about both morals and the characters involved.

Bravo! I would recommend this to anyone.

Thank you so much to Netgalley for this wonderful experience.