Book Review: Birnam Wood, Eleanor Catton

Birnam Wood is on the move…

Five years ago, Mira Bunting founded a guerrilla gardening group: Birnam Wood. An undeclared, unregulated, sometimes-criminal, sometimes-philanthropic gathering of friends, this activist collective plants crops wherever no one will notice, on the sides of roads, in forgotten parks, and neglected backyards. For years, the group has struggled to break even. Then Mira stumbles on an answer, a way to finally set the group up for the long term: a landslide has closed the Korowai Pass, cutting off the town of Thorndike. Natural disaster has created an opportunity, a sizable farm seemingly abandoned.

But Mira is not the only one interested in Thorndike. Robert Lemoine, the enigmatic American billionaire, has snatched it up to build his end-times bunker – or so he tells Mira when he catches her on the property. Intrigued by Mira, Birnam Wood, and their entrepreneurial spirit, he suggests they work this land. But can they trust him? And, as their ideals and ideologies are tested, can they trust each other?

Another wonderful gripping novel from Eleanor Catton. Populated with intriguing characters, powerful ideas and incredibly long sentences, this novel is a little like a tapestry: it draws threads from Shakespeare, thrillers, climate change, politics and weaves them together to make something new and unsettling.

What I Liked

  • The characters, particularly Robert and Mira
  • The use of modern communication technologies – phones, social media
  • Lemoine – a great psychopathic villain
  • Catton’s unique use of language and her sentence structures really contribute to the flow and meaning of the novel.

What Could Have Been Different

  • The opening chapters of the novel felt very heavy on exposition and on politics.
  • Tony – the worst kind of socialist idealism

Eleanor Catton has been one of my favourite authors since her debut The Rehearsal – her sense of voice in her writing is, in my opinion, exceptional, and the complexity and humanity of her characters was astounding. Similarly, her Booker Prize winning The Luminaries stunned me with its deft combination of character and structure and allusion, much of which went over my head.

Allusiveness remains a key feature of this novel: entitled Birnam Wood, you are encouraged to look for those Shakespearean comparisons between Macbeth and this novel. Is Robert Lemoine a modern day Macbeth? Or does he represent the witches or Banquo? Are we meant to see Lady Macbeth in Mira? Is Sir Owen Darvish Duncan, Malcolm or Banquo? Fortunately, this novel is by no means anything as mawkish or clumsy as a modern day retelling of the Shakespeare and is robustly its own creation so those allusions feel suggestive and nebulous and evocatively indistinct which I loved.

The novel is very much a modern day novel centred around climate change, environmentalism and our exploitation of the modern world and the conflict between capitalism and liberal socialism. Our heroes are the underfunded gardening collective after whom the novel takes its name, a loose group of men and women who take over unused parcels of land and farm them, usually without the owner’s consent or knowledge. I loved this idea: a wonderful form of guerilla agriculture! When a landslide exposes and isolates Sir Owen Darvish’s estate, the collective move in and are met with and offered money by Robert Lemoine, an incredibly manipulative and sinister American billionaire.

Lemoine’s presence on the land is no more legal, perhaps, than Birnam Wood’s and his motives are distinctly sinister – and I did wonder whether Catton could have done something a little more ambitious or nuanced with him. American? Must be evil. American billionaire? A definite seat in hell awaits him. It felt a little… familiar and obvious perhaps. At the same time, though, Catton seemed to have a great deal of fun writing him and he was one of the more enjoyable points of view that we got treated to: unlike Mira or Shelley, he was not mired in worries for other people or that irritating sense of morality that the rest of us labour under!

In fact, the morality and the politics felt rather too heavy in the opening chapters – perhaps the first half of the novel. Catton leans heavily into exposition as she introduces new characters and we are regaled with pages of back story and history before those characters do anything and I can see many readers finding that rather dense and intimidating, and being put off as a result. Similarly, the meeting held by Birnam Wood in order to decide whether to accept Lemoine’s offer of money or not – whether to sell out their values or not – was heavy on politics. Tony, a founding member of the group who had left some years ago and just returned, expounded at length on the perils of capitalism and consumerism and lamented that there is “something so joyless about the left these days… so forbidding and self-denying. And policing” and that

“Polyamory is to fucking capitalistic… The idea that this partner gives you a little bit of this, and this partner gives you a little bit of that, and you don’t want to risk missing out to you buy both – it’s a hedge!… Polyamory doesn’t leading to fucking socialism, it leads to hyper-egoistic, Mormon, hyper-capitalistic -“

Whilst I am by nature and inclination – if not by upbringing – proudly socialist, I found Tony to be both a deeply unconvincing character here and elsewhere in the novel, and I found his diatribes to be lengthy and tedious and unnecessary.

What I did find touching was the relationship between Mira and Shelley, friends who share ideals but are perhaps on different paths. Shelley, seeking to forge a life outside Birnam Wood and trying to break from the group without betraying Mira; Mira, sensitive enough to Shelley’s moods to know something is wrong but not clear on what to do about it. Mira, who generates lots of the ideas that drive Birnam Wood, and Shelley who does most of the practical running of Birnam Wood.

The relationship between Birnam Wood and Lemoine was never going to be an entirely comfortable one – and its being inspired or informed by a Shakespearean tragedy should have prepared me for the ending – but the final chapters of the novel felt like a sudden and somewhat unsettling shift in tone for me.

Overall, the novel was fascinating but its characters and writing did not grip in the same way that Catton’s earlier novels did. I am still slightly surprised, however, that it did not find its way onto the Women’s Prize longlist this year. I do think it warranted a place there.

Eleanor Catton MNZM (born 24 September 1985) is a New Zealand novelist and screenwriter. Born in Canada, Catton moved to New Zealand as a child and grew up in Christchurch. She completed a master’s degree in creative writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters. Her award-winning debut novel, The Rehearsal, written as her Master’s thesis, was published in 2008, and has been adapted into a 2016 film of the same name. Her second novel, The Luminaries, won the 2013 Booker Prize, making Catton the youngest author ever to win the prize (at age 28) and only the second New Zealander. It was subsequently adapted into a television miniseries, with Catton as screenwriter.


Rating: 4 out of 5.


Rating: 4 out of 5.

Plot / Pace:

Rating: 3 out of 5.


Rating: 4 out of 5.


Rating: 3.5 out of 5.


Rating: 4 out of 5.

Page Count:

432 pages


Granta Books


2nd March 2023


Amazon, Goodreads

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