By Eleanor Catton, Review.
Ten years after The Luminaries, the blockbuster saga of the 1860s gold rush in Hokitika, Eleanor Catton takes us on another journey deep into the heart of New Zealand, bringing insiders and outsiders together again in a frenzied tale of exploration and corruption.
The title is borrowed from the landscape of Macbeth, and we might be tempted to suspect a tragedy is about to unfold. Though on what scale, who will be the villain this time and will there be any witches? Something wicked certainly seems likely. But essentially, the story is a thriller. Racing along at times but frequently pausing for reflection, tackling a host of global themes, with a tight-knit community up against a powerful stranger. Together they are destined to ignite a catastrophic tinderbox.
The story explores the destruction of natural wonder, the fragility of human life, combative social interaction, political intrigue, the pitfalls of social media, technological nightmares and the omnipresence of an American billionaire seeking to control the world. Elon Musk springs to mind and won’t go away. Robert Lemoine is our man here, simultaneously wreaking havoc and exercising absolute control. And he’s doing this all out of revenge, targeting anyone who disturbs his peace of mind.
Mira Bunting is the founding member of the Birnam Wood collective; a group of eco-warriors on a mission to realise sustainable growth, on other people’s land. Facing bankruptcy, they sell out and accept an offer they simply can’t refuse. The cooperative ups sticks, just like the trees in the Scottish play – and Birnam Wood relocates to the Korowai National Park. Here, the personal and political dynamics are played out to devastating effect.
The author digs deep, not just into the landscape but into the very core of national identity and what it means to be a Kiwi. Owen Darvish, the recently knighted landowner, boasts of
“ingenuity, tenacity, and fair-minded pragmatism”.
He sees his fellow New Zealanders as decent, plucky, fundamentally good-natured underdogs.
In contrast, Lemoine, lives to control others. He achieves this with his charm, but more so with the aid of technology. He is happy as long as everyone has a phone he can hack, helping him to control their every move. Only Tony, an aspiring journalist, takes a real stand, but his discovery leads him into great danger. If the security guards can’t find him, the drones will. A terrifying fleet of airborne spies is bound to spot him sooner or later. This tale is all about pursuit; of ideals, lifestyles and human prey.
This story revels in contrast. Establishing the natural world and fundamental human endeavour, decency even, Catton brings us the simple pleasures of spinach, silverbeet, cabbages, cauliflowers, leeks, carrots, and Jerusalem artichokes. In the woods, we have the tantalising prospect of a glimpse of the orange fronted parakeet. Too garish? The New Zealand fairy tern is there to charm.
And then, through the eyes of Tony, dodging the drones overhead, we discover
“the signs of toxic, rapacious, unconscionable, imperial-capitalist industrial disgrace”.
Lemoine is destroying the ecosystem in the national park. This is another form of his vengeance against all who disturb his psyche. Only his world matters, externally and internally. In people terms, he is hardly a tragic hero in the class of Macbeth, but he is responsible for the fate of many. He also cannot escape his own destruction in the end.
As for a possible Lady Macbeth, Catton seems to dabble with feminism, but doesn’t quite champion strong women. Lady Darvish comes to the fore.
“she believed, quite frankly and unapologetically, that women were superior to men….women’s minds were subtler than men’s, more flexible, more capacious, more resilient, and more socially and circumstantially astute”
Ironically, Lady Darvish’s biggest success involves a brutal act of violence. This is measured and carried out with great accuracy, but the consequences for her are disastrous.
Mira, for her part, admits to her devotion to Tony late on. For Mira, Tony was everything.
“Tony made one feel like things were possible. Like I was possible. Like there was time.”
But the planet is running out of time, being hounded out of time even, as the story moves to its inevitable conclusion.
Eleanor Catton (photo: Murdo MacLeod)
Just one quibble. Much as I admire the author’s craft and ability to stir up conflict, I find Catton’s excessive use of italics somewhat vexing, ramming home how she wants us to read the dialogue. Italics aside, the interplay between her characters is genuinely electrifying. This could easily be a stage play, in Stratford-upon-Avon, or maybe streamed via some clever device, allowing us to track the progress of Te Mara Neke, the moving garden, from the comfort of our living rooms.
Birnam Wood is all manner of things for the reader. A delight, an exploration, a learning experience, a tragic drama full of pathos and comic exchanges, in a hotbed of excitement and interaction. The setting is beautiful, but one man has the power to make everything very ugly for all the inhabitants.
Eleanor Catton has the extraordinary power of story-telling on a grand scale, exposing both the shallowest and deepest levels of humanity. Her fictional world is complex and disturbing, yet full of amusing observations and knowing comments, revealing insight and understanding of internal and external dispositions. Shakespeare never wrote a novel, and he didn’t know about lithium deposits or mineral sludges. I don’t imagine he ever envisaged global extinction. But I’m sure he would appreciate the drama in this crisis; this tale of deceit, treachery and woe. And he would surely recognise the characters stalking the land.
© Eddie Hewitt 2023
Southbank Centre - Event March 2023
Granta - Birnam Wood page