The eye-catching title of Eleanor Catton’s new novel, Birnam Wood, refers to a scene in Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, a simple and powerful scene. In his castle, the tyrant Macbeth stands ready to resist an army of rebels. He has been assured by apparitions that he will never be vanquished until “Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him”. But the rebels have cut down boughs from the trees to disguise their advance, and to the horror-struck Macbeth, the wood appears to be crawling up the hill. He has been deceived into seeking his own destruction.
In naming their collective Birnam Wood, the activists in Catton’s novel adopt the misdirection and subversion of this scene to fight the despots in their own midst. The setting is New Zealand, a fragile paradise seemingly run and inhabited by cuddly Kiwis with a reputation for modesty, self-deprecation, and care for the planet. But our protagonists reveal complexities and muddled motives from the outset, and their enemy is no brute warrior to be easily misled.
Mira Bunting is the founder of Birnam Wood, a group of guerrilla gardeners who farm by stealth on un-monitored land, borrow or steal water and other essentials as needed, and sell the produce to buyers who agree with them that property is theft. Her friend Shelley is the administrative engine of the group, though all members equally turn the earth and muddy their hands.
Mira and Shelley are pulling apart as the story opens, and Shelley is thinking of moving on to other projects. Into this tension walks Tony, who has been absent from the group for years. He wanted to see Mira again, and he himself is stirring up feelings in Shelley. But when he meets his old friends, he dominates their discussion until he has antagonised them all. It is a rift that will have an impact beyond what any of them can foresee.
Mira’s parents are liberal and divorced. She has grown up ploughing her own furrow, but she is always in search of security. Tony’s family are conservative and rather rich Catholics, and he wants to prove to them that his journalism is not a hobby and that his investigations will change the world. When he does start snooping, he is surprisingly effective and at the same time reckless.
Shelley’s mum is ideologically in between, at first dismissing her daughter’s activism but ultimately proud of her work and of the Birnam Wood collective. Shelley knows she has the skills to be more conventionally successful, but she has a psychological need to remain likeable. The three young Kiwis, it turns out, are not all that cuddly. Within each is a flaming core of self-justification, jealousy, and desire that will scorch the earth they are so anxious about. In short, they are humans, not ideas.
Their ambitions converge in Thorndike, a town that has been cut off from commerce following a landslide. Wherever disaster strikes, a capitalist smells money, and Thorndike is no exception. Adjoining the town is a defunct sheep station owned by a pesticide magnate who has recently been knighted. Sir Owen Darvish and his Lady have quietly sold this land to Robert Lemoine, the billionaire CEO of Autonomo (makers of surveillance drones and such, and clandestinely involved in much worse).
Darvish plans to launch a wink-wink conservation project focussing on the orange-fronted parakeet, but meanwhile he and his wife are celebrating his knighthood and the fact that they have become much wealthier than they already were. Lemoine, who can most politely be described as a psychopath, comes complete with private plane, former Mossad bodyguards, and a talent for sexual manipulation.
Lemoine and Mira form an unlikely, under-the-radar partnership, and soon she and her friends are digging, planting, and mulching on the estate, while Lemoine uses them as a cover for his own illegal and devastating deep mining activities. Still, Lemoine and Darvish, or even the New Zealand government, which readily sells citizenship for investment and turns a blind eye when convenient, are not the only ones staging a dance of planetary destruction.
“Birnam Wood leaves the reader shaken, as it should. In no time at all, the events of Catton’s story escalate from the appalling to the apocalyptic. ”
Long before Lemoine secretly tracks Mira through her phone, Mira and Shelley have secretly been tracking each other. The members of the Birnam Wood collective depend on their phones and connectivity to inform, communicate, navigate, investigate, organise, and resist, all to the beat of their respective playlists. Their rebellion relies on the very monsters they are fighting, and their dependencies perennially feed those monsters. And how many of us readers can excuse ourselves in that regard? So will there be anyone left to save them from themselves? The mothers of Mira, Shelley, and Tony, perhaps? Even if they are too late to rescue their offspring from death, maybe they will raise hell afterwards? If there is an afterwards.
Catton could be much more economical in drawing out the backstories of her characters. Still, even while her story follows an inevitable arc, and even though her characters behave predictably, she knows how to keep the reader turning pages. She writes authentic dialogue for the activists, expressing their idealism, their sensitive discussions, and their frustrations. In their carefully schooled mindfulness of one another’s sentiments, they temper their statements with “like”, “I guess”, “just”. They are feeling their way forward, with excruciating earnestness, in a shifting world.
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The idea that gardening can save the world is seductive, as is the gardeners’ measured delight in bringing a degraded hectare to friable tilth, or even just saying “friable tilth” out loud. Tony’s entirely justifiable, though helpless, rage at the poisoned inheritance being left for his generation is a mirror of all our feelings, and if he had not been such a relentless mansplainer, he might have served his purpose better.
Minor characters, especially the mothers, are so vividly drawn that we can hear them speaking even after they have left the scene. The humblebragging, clueless Darvishes are easy to despise, but at some point, we find ourselves hoping that they will stumble on to the truth, and live to tell it. Most potent of all is the Muckerberg vibe of Catton’s villain. This is the class of men that could, if they wanted, mitigate the threats to our planet, but instead they build bunkers in which to survive the Armageddon they themselves have wrought.
We are not likely to see the end of doom lit anytime in the near future, and perhaps, in one form or another, it has always been with us. Birnam Wood leaves the reader shaken, as it should. Catton’s story maps the landscapes of climate activism, predatory capitalism, and political smarm, as well as the subterranean webs that tangle them together. The reader is chilled to see how quickly and how far we have gone into the darkest future we can imagine. In no time at all, the events of her story escalate from the appalling to the apocalyptic. Maybe the end of the world is not nigh, maybe psychopath billionaires are not really building bunkers at the outposts of the earth, but in this struggle there is no room for complacency.
Latha Anantharaman is a writer and editor based in Palakkad.