March 2023

Noted

Eleanor Catton’s ‘Birnam Wood’

By Michael Williams
Cover of Eleanor Catton’s ‘Birnam Wood’
The Booker winner’s new novel is a satirical romp taking on human frailty, and both action and inaction in the face of ecological collapse

How nice it is to read something that is so utterly and unapologetically fun. Actually, let me clarify: how nice it is to read a serious, angry, politically charged and geopolitically anxious book that is also fun.

A decade or so ago, when former MI5 chief Stella Rimington was chairing the Man Booker Prize judging panel, a low-key (and very British) scandal bubbled up. In an interview, Rimington had expressed the view that in the minds of that year’s judges, the winning book should have “readability”. A lowbrow suggestion, some responded, or at the very least a grave insult to the value of Literary effort. One anonymous publisher said, “We need icy indifference to public opinion from our Booker judges, and we expect at least a few impenetrable, dark, tricky novels on the shortlist.”

It’s a meaningless and self-defeating binary – literary versus readable – but one that is also gallingly tenacious. The idea that fun is the enemy of seriousness in literature, and that play, plottiness and – God forbid – an actual sense of humour, are the stuff of guilty pleasures rather than literary achievement.

Eleanor Catton’s own Booker win came two years after Rimington’s comments, with The Luminaries. Much was made at the time of her age (27) and the book’s length (800 pages), but it was also a marvel of a book. Set in the New Zealand goldfields in the 1860s, it was plotty, at times a bit rococo, and owed much of its appeal to the technicolour characters and confident 19th century narrative drive, despite its length and ambition presenting as a bit forbidding. Ten years on, Birnam Wood (Granta), her eagerly anticipated follow-up, is a stylish, propulsive eco-thriller with satirical flair. It’s a cracker.

Taking its cues from tech billionaire Peter Thiel’s relocation to New Zealand, Birnam Wood tracks a collision of motivations – class, ideology, varying degrees of environmental consciousness – at once timely and timeless. A “guerrilla gardening collective”, the Birnam Wood of the title are largely content planting on abandoned land and living on whatever plantstuff and other materials they can scavenge. But their founder, Mira Bunting, has bolder ambitions and visions of rebellion that outstrip their meagre foraging existence so, inevitably, when temptation presents itself – land, money, patronage, opportunity – compromise can’t be far behind. And if malevolent billionaire and drone-enthusiast Robert Lemoine isn’t the literal devil, he’s not far off: a delicious and familiar villain.

Catton doesn’t let any of her characters off the hook, though. Earnestness and ideology bump up against self-delusion and manipulation: landowners are fatigued and compromised, activists are naive and self-regarding, sincere in their aspirations and snaky in their ambitions. It is satire driven from a place of what feels like amused fury rather than despair, and the sequences of the collective arguing are deeply, unmistakably from a place of intimate familiarity. The problems facing the planet are urgent. The stakes are high. But human frailty is also funny and gripping, and this is a novel that tracks the consequences of action and inaction with acute scepticism.

As the Macbeth nod in the book’s title would suggest, there are Shakespearean impulses aplenty here, but also – improbably enough – Lee Child, whom Catton has explicitly acknowledged as an influential authorial presence in the writing of this book. When the guns come out, you know she’s learnt from the best. And make no mistake: this book is exquisite on the line. Catton has a way with a sentence, and the generous and playful cadences and assured command of voice make Birnam Wood a substantial work of literary talent. Take this: “Like all self-mythologising rebels, Mira preferred enemies to rivals, and often turned her rivals into enemies, the better to disdain them as secret agents of the status quo.” Or this, from her ambitious journalist Tony Gallo: “There’s something so joyless about the left these days … so forbidding and self-denying. And policing. No one’s having any fun, we’re all just sitting around scolding each other for doing too much or not enough – and it’s like, what kind of vision for the future is that? Where’s the hope? Where’s the humanity? We’re all aspiring to be monks where we could be aspiring to be lovers.” Self-serving, pompous and compromised despite his sincerity: an impressive juggle. Catton has substantial things to say and an observational heft that places this novel among the best of climate fiction. But it’s also a total, bloody romp. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Michael Williams

Is the editor of The Monthly.

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