Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton

Jorge Garcia

Summary of the Review


Birnam Wood is a novel of impressive artistic scope that I highly recommend. Character development is one of the novel’s greatest strengths, as the plot grows through the intricacies of their personalities.

Birnam Wood unfolds slowly and steadily, gradually building tension and suspense as you read. The way it’s written is unique, with no clear chapter breaks, which encourages you to keep reading and contributes to the book’s overall atmosphere.

4

This post contains affiliate links, so I may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on this site at no additional cost to you.

Affiliate links should be underlined when placed within the text. Additionally, book cover images may also contain affiliate links.

Read this climate fiction novel and uncover the fascinating theme of human self-preservation as we unravel the moral implications of the character’s actions and choices in this psychological thriller.

Summary of the Book

Birnam Wood (2023) by Eleanor Catton, Booker Prize-winning author, is a captivating eco-thriller that looks at human behavior and the results of our actions. Set in New Zealand, the story revolves around Birnam Wood, a Millennial guerrilla gardening collective founded by Mira Bunting, which plants crops on unused land and scavenges materials to grow food.

Birnam Wood Book Review

The group faces financial difficulties until Mira finds a chance: a farm in Korowai National Park, temporarily abandoned due to an earthquake and owned by enigmatic American billionaire Robert Lemoine. Lemoine offers to bankroll the group for $100,000, claiming to support their cause while secretly using them to cover his mining operation.

Tensions arise as Mira’s duplicity brings her into conflict with fellow group members Shelley Noakes and ex-member Tony Gallo, both of whom have their motives and suspicions. The novel examines the characters’ conflicting ideals, loyalties, and personal ambitions as they navigate their relationships with each other and their involvement with Lemoine, whose dark secrets threaten to surface.

Shelley looked around the room, suppressing an urge to turn, walk back out the door, and disappear from Birnam Wood.

In the psychological, contemporary thriller Birnam Wood, a rich cast of characters faces continuous tests of their moral compasses. The novel delves deep into the impact of mining on the environment and the moral implications of the characters’ choices, creating a suspenseful story with a backdrop of ecological peril.


This novel is a contemporary plot, in the context of the current environmental crisis, with drone surveillance scenes that create a claustrophobic feeling even though the action occurs outdoors. There is also a highly technological, illegal rare-earth mining operation conducted by Robert Lemoin, an enigmatic billionaire businessman and a drone manufacturer who tries to install an apocalypse-survival bunker in Korowai National Park.

Eleanor Catton masterfully weaves all these elements together to create an intricate narrative, constructing a mesmerizing tale combining Shakespearean drama and Austenian wit while reflecting on the human impulse to persevere in their existence.

Characters

Some reviews I’ve read about Birnam Wood criticize that Catton frontloads the book with a lot of detail about the characters. The criticism establishes that the book’s first part may be boring for some people because there is a lot of backstory through exposition.

It is true. The character development of Mira, Shelley, Tony, Robert, Owen Darvish, and his wife Jill takes many pages. We meet, for example, Shelley’s mother and what she thinks of Birnam Wood.

We also gain insight into Mira’s personality and her relationship with Shelley. Additionally, we learn that Tony is the middle child in a family of five and that they practice Catholicism devoutly. These specific, although seemingly irrelevant details are crucial for comprehending the characters’ moral development.

She wouldn’t understand the danger he was in, wouldn’t appreciate the risks, wouldn’t really comprehend the scale of it.

For instance, this strategy is most noticeable in the scene where Tony and Shelley go out to dinner. Most of that scene focuses on giving us Tony’s backstory, emphasizing his political ideology and a disagreement he had with Mira before Tony left for Mexico. This ill feeling among them will turn out to be very important for the development of the plot.


That scene helps us understand how the narrator’s voice dwells on the most diverse aspects of the characters’ lives and thoughts. Still, there is a straightforward reason for making this move. As readers, we must understand the origin of the character’s motivations well.

In this regard, we need to be clear about the reasons why Mira associates with Robert in the first place, why Shelley decides to start a cold war against Mira, or why Tony, the most typecasted character in the novel, risks his life to unmask an international plot in which, according to him, the New Zealand government is involved.

Birnam Wood Book Review

I must disagree with the criticism expressed by other reviewers. The narrative voice perfectly sets up the novel by revealing the character’s motivation clearly and thoroughly. Furthermore, the beginning of the book was one of the most enjoyable sections for me.

We should praise Catton for her ability to create complex, morally gray, and relatable characters. In addition, the book explores the characters’ thought patterns and motives, allowing readers to empathize.

Birnam Wood and Macbeth

The name Birnam Wood (I find it utterly funny that a group devoted to invading unused land and cultivating it is called a “guerrilla” collective. In the novel, the word guerrilla only appears once) comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1623).

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the theme of moral ambiguity is central and is shown through the main character’s actions and motivations. In the beginning, Macbeth is a good and loyal soldier, but as the play goes on, he starts to struggle with ambition and greed. He’s influenced by the witches’ prophecies and Lady Macbeth’s sneaky encouragement. When he decides to kill King Duncan to take the throne, it’s the start of his slide into bad behavior.

Whenever I did anything with Birnam Wood, he said,’like, even if I just mentioned it, even just said the name, my dad would say, without fail, “So who’s Macbeth?” It was his one joke.

As the story goes on, Macbeth does even worse things, like planning the murders of Banquo and Macduff’s family. This makes it harder to tell if he’s evil since the line between right and wrong gets blurry. Even though he does some nasty things, Macbeth’s inner battles and feelings of guilt show that he’s still human, which makes his character more complicated and not just evil. Through this detailed portrayal, the audience is invited to think about the complicated aspects of morality and what it means to be human.

In Birnam Wood, moral ambiguity is manifested mainly in the character of Mira. As the group’s founder, she seeks to implement a cost-effective solution for the collective’s sustainability, accepting it without hesitation.

This decision confronts her with some characters from the novel, such as Tony. He considers associating with Robert like “getting into bed with the enemy.” Mira hesitates to carry on with her idea, but she goes ahead anyway.

Shelley is also subject to this moral ambiguity. For example, throughout the novel, she struggles with her decision to leave Birnam Wood and get a steady-paying job. However, much of this decision concerns Shelley’s displeasure with how Mira treats her. In this sense, Shelley is not entirely honest with Mira or herself, leading her to make decisions she will regret later.

Birnam Wood Book Review

However, there is a moment in the novel when Shelley and Mira’s moral ambiguity comes through with absolute clarity. The thing is, I can’t tell you at what event and what decisions they make because it would be a huge spoiler. However, stick with this idea from Chapter 3 onwards while observing the character dynamics.


In this sense, we can establish a continuum of morality in the novel and place the characters on it. At the end of the moral certainty would be Robert and Tony. They are clear about the relationship between their ideas and actions, and both are always consistent.


At the other extreme, we would have Mira and Shelley, who show greater latitude between their ideas and behavior, making them complex and believable characters. Also, Owen and Jill Darvish are in this gray area of the continuum.

Memory was tractable, and never more than in a time of grief. He would use her doubt against her. He could do that. He could change her mind.

Birnam Wood and Emma

Another evident influence of the novel is Jane Austen’s Emma (1815). Catton herself estates that what fascinates her about Jane Austen’s works is that “there is almost no figurative language at all and minimal descriptive language. Everything is narration; everything is driving forward the consciousness of the characters”.

In this sense, I think that the most salient characteristics of Emma (and Austen in general) that are present in Birnam Wood are:

  • Complex characters: The characters are all well-developed, dynamic characters who undergo personal change and self-discovery throughout the novel. They may possess flaws, like Mira’s apparent misjudgment about Robert, that catalyze her development.
  • Witty dialogue: The novel feature clever, engaging dialogue that showcases each character’s personality and often employs irony and humor to criticize societal norms subtly.
  • Character-driven narrative: The primary driving force behind Birnam Wood comes from the characters’ interactions and relationships rather than a fast-paced or action-packed plot. One can classify the novel as a literary thriller.
  • Social commentary: Especially through dialogue, the novel offers insightful observations on social customs, gender roles, and class distinctions, often presented humorously. The novel criticizes several social groups, such as baby boomers, radical environmentalists, ineffective governments, greedy corporations, and others.

Narrator and Point of View

The last observation concerns the mastery with which Catton creates and maintains the narrative voice. In the novel, we have an omniscient narrator who adopts the point of view of different characters in different chapters. This narrative strategy is very effective in masterfully administering information to the reader, creating a narrator that fluctuates from the direct to the free indirect discourse.

Free indirect style, also known as free indirect discourse or free indirect speech, is a narrative technique that blends third-person narration with a character’s thoughts and emotions, creating a seamless transition between the narrator’s voice and the character’s perspective.

This technique allows readers to gain insights into a character’s inner life without needing explicit markers, such as “he thought” or “she felt.”

A narrator who transitions between free indirect and direct styles is flexible or fluid. This type of narrator can shift between different narrative styles, adapting to the story’s needs and providing the reader with a more dynamic and immersive experience.

But if there was ever a moment in your life when you had to make a choice, Mira, it’s right now, it’s this choice, right now, right here.

By employing free indirect and direct styles, the flexible narrator can offer insights into a character’s thoughts and emotions while maintaining a level of narrative control and authority.

Let’s see an example of this transition. We are on page 237, chapter III. Tony is at a chip shop recharging his laptop and phone. While he waits, he is googling Robert’s drone company, Autonomo. Several instances of free indirect discourse blend the narrative voice with Tony’s thoughts and emotions.

Exposing a billionaire would have been sweet, Tony thought, his imagination running ahead of himself somewhat; but exposing his own government, the New Zealand government, supposedly so green, so clean, and so famously inoffensive!

That would be so much sweeter.

Here we have an example of direct discourse because there is the marker “Tony thought.”

In the following example, however, in pge 241, the narrative voice actively describes Tony’s actions while also revealing his thoughts on how his experiences will contribute to his story without the need for explicit markers:

Tony was grinning underneath his balaclava. Everything that he was doing, running from the drones, hiding out in the hollow, layering up, employing obfuscation tactics –these were the kind of details that were going to make his story great.

These examples demonstrate free indirect discourse within the passage, allowing the reader to understand Tony’s thoughts and emotions while maintaining a seamless narrative flow. This feature constitutes one outstanding technical achievement of the novel.

Opinion

Birnam Wood is a novel of impressive artistic scope that I highly recommend. Character development is one of the novel’s greatest strengths, as the plot grows through the intricacies of their personalities.

The plot unfolds slowly and steadily, gradually building tension and suspense as you read. The way it’s written is unique, with no clear chapter breaks, which encourages you to keep reading and contributes to the book’s overall atmosphere.

Eleanor Catton’s writing is beautifully expressive, filled with vivid imagery that truly transports you to New Zealand. In addition, the book delves into thought-provoking issues, such as the conflict between environmental activism and corporate greed. Although the story evolves into a thriller, it maintains depth through well-developed characters and captivating storytelling.

This novel might not be for you if you’re seeking a thriller where the plot drives the character development. Similarly, if you prefer a book with non-stop action and events unfolding rapidly, you should explore other options.