It may be the first time I’m blogging about Canadian-born writer Eleanor Catton, but I’ve been following her career since I read her first book – a breakout novel that her publisher pushed into my hands, predicting she would be huge. Although she hasn’t necessarily found commercial success, she’s won enough book awards (most recently the Booker) to be considered a heavyweight, and her latest Birnam Wood is intelligent enough to once again put her in contention for all the book prizes she’s still eligible for.
It’s New Zealand in 2017. There is a small collective of people that call themselves “Birnam Wood”, who act as guerilla gardeners, planting vegetable crops in spare unused land. Sometimes it’s with permission, and sometimes it’s illegal. The group is led by a woman named Mira and her close friend Shelley. They do this for a living, barely scraping by, adamant that they will work outside the capitalist system, only selling enough vegetables to cover their meagre costs, sometimes sleeping in their van so they can rent out their flat for a few nights to make some extra money. Mira learns about a huge tract of land that’s relatively cut off from any main thoroughfares because of a landslide, and the plots are set to remain empty for awhile, so she scouts out the area in hopes of planting it. While there, she inadvertently meets billionaire Robert who is leasing and digging up the area to build up his own doomsday bunker, and he offers Birnam Wood a bunch of cash as a test to see if their business model can scale up should they have the resources. Mira cautiously accepts, but it quickly becomes clear that Robert is not simply after a new gardening manifesto. His intentions are selfish, and there are already a few members of Birnam Wood that have decided to catch him in his lies.
Although it may appear on the surface that this book is light in tone, it’s quite serious. Aside from the quirkiness of these characters, there is a darkness that underpins their interactions. Almost every single character is desperate to achieve something, and will seemingly stop at little to get their way. What drives each person is what sets them apart, some having positive intentions, others having very selfish intentions. Greed and selfishness is the instigator behind this plot, including assumptions about others and whether their goal is the ‘right’ one or not. I had the pleasure of seeing the author speak about this book here in Calgary a few weeks ago, and she called this a response to the election of Donald Trump. Although there is no mention of him, and no reference to the U.S.A. or politics in general, this shift in the political landscape seemed to push people apart from each other, further into their own corners, and the result of this polemic landscape is the creation of a group like Birnam Wood, and the people that prey upon their earnestness.
This book felt a bit too long for what it was, but that’s often how her stories are; her Booker winner clocked in at 850 pages, so Catton is not known for her concise writing. Some of the longest passages in this one either detail a roundabout argument about the direction of Birnam Wood by its collective members, or an internal rant from one character about another. The arguments about the direction of Birnam Wood, whether or not accepting money from a billionaire is ethical, why they are punishing themselves through their monastic lifestyles, etc. are all entertaining to read because one almost pities how hard these young adults are thinking about things. In reality, most of us just accept these systems as beyond our control and I’ll admit to tiring of these lofty discussions after a few pages. As the book draws to a close the action ramps up to an almost unbelievable level, turning this low-stakes literary novel in an action and suspense worthy of a Tom Cruise appearance. And be warned, the ending is shocking.
The addition of a billionaire spices up any book plot, and in many cases, blows things into the realm of absurdity. I’m a believer that billionaires themselves are a failing of our society. Sure, make lots of money to reward yourself for hard work, but billionaires? No one individual needs billions of dollars at their disposal. I don’t believe herself Catton rails against capitalism, but she does use the character of Robert to demonstrate why having too much money is a problem – he’s lost all sense of right and wrong because things simply happen as he wants them to, regardless of the consequences. When I saw her speak, she admitted this book is a satire, and even more convincingly, no one character is safe from these cutting observations offered to the reader.