by Eleanor Catton, 2023
Birnam Wood was on so many “best of” lists for 2023 that I finally broke down and ordered it. Eleanor Catton already has quite a legacy: at 28, she was the youngest-ever winner of the Booker Prize in 2013 for The Luminaries. Yes, I read that one too, 10 years ago. Apparently, some people are fully formed as stand-out writers at birth. This book was also riveting all the way through.
[The above links are affiliate links, where I earn a small profit if you order from this site at no additional cost to you.]
The location is lush New Zealand, and three sets of people intersect in this novel. The first is a nonprofit organization called Birnam Wood, an activist gardening group (you read that right) that has as its charter to cultivate land “along verges and fence lines, beside motorway offramps, inside demolition sites and in junkyards filled with abandoned cars.” They do this both legally, with permission, and illegally, by knowingly trespassing on private property or on property that appears to be abandoned.
Their point is this: there is so much land being wasted, and so much hunger and homelessness, and they see what they are doing as an obvious solution to a never-ending problem. The thorniest issue with their approach is that not only are they trespassing in many cases, but resources are being stolen: specifically, water and electricity, to cultivate and harvest the crops they raise. So the organization is constantly operating by stealth and on the knife edge of financial collapse.
Mira, the founder of Birnam Wood and a trained horticulturalist, has clearly convinced her loyal band of followers that their end game justifies the means: what they are doing is so righteous (they are feeding the hungry!) that breaking a few laws along the way is immaterial. Her best friend, Shelley, has been at her side and supportive for four years, but has grown tired of being second fiddle and is ready to move on to something new. Tony, another founder of the group, has been away for a few years at grad school and has just returned, freshly idealistic. A reunion with the gang and Tony at a bar one night erupts into a ferocious confrontation where he spews some of the wildest anticapitalistic nonsense I’ve ever read—many times I burst out laughing at this exquisite piece of writing. The back and forth between Tony and everyone else in the bar is priceless—eavesdropping on that fight alone was worth the cost of the book.
As Mira is scouting out a new, remote piece of property for potential plantings, she runs into Robert Lemoine. He is an American billionaire who happens to have just purchased the property (almost) that Mira happens to be trespassing on, so naturally he wants to know what she is up to. She initially lies to him, but he catches her out in the lie, so the truth comes out about her little gardening collective. Intrigued, he makes her a proposition. Suppose he invested in her organization, to the tune of $100,000? With a $10,000 deposit?
Mira, whose organization is constantly broke, is floored at this development and cannot turn the money down. Even though she must take a decision like this back to the group for a vote, somehow the $10,000 has already mysteriously shown up in their bank account. Mr. Lemoine has mastered the art of digital overreach, and he is so far ahead of Mira that she has no idea who she’s just partnered up with.
Robert Lemoine, unfortunately, has not completed his purchase of the property—only preliminary agreements have been made with the true owners, who are Sir Owen and Lady Jill Darvish. So he’s invested in a nonprofit organization and given them permission to work on land that technically he doesn’t even own yet.
His purpose in buying the property is that he’s a “doomsteader”; at least that’s what he’s told the Darvishes. He plans to sink a bunker on their remote property so that when World War III breaks out, he’s got a safe place to hide.
When Mira returns to the group to tell them about the phenomenal offer she’s received from Lemoine, they are split between being stunned, ecstatic, relieved, and upset. Tony accuses her of “going against everything this collective has ever stood for,” and after much argument and debate, he is roundly asked to resign the group. He begins his own private poking around into Lemoine’s activities, and believes he’s stumbled upon the “scoop of a lifetime” that will make his career as an investigative journalist.
The intersections of Mira and the Birnam Wood group (and Tony by extension), Robert Lemoine, and the Darvishes are explosive and heart-stopping. Everyone has a story to cover for their true intentions, but no one more so than Robert Lemoine. I admire this writer not only for her imaginative skills but also for her ability to hold back—to allow the reader to use theirs. The ending was such a cliffhanger that I had to check my audiobook to see if I’d accidentally skipped the last few chapters. Prepare to be blown away.