Book Review – Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton

books, reviews

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I have to admit that I wasn’t drawn to this book because of Eleanor Catton. It was purely because of the Shakespeare reference. I read the title and had to find out more. It sounded like an interesting read and it was certainly creating buzz. So I pre-ordered it. I was a bit concerned because I normally end up disappointed by hyped books. It was also much longer than the books I’ve been reading recently. That’s probably why it took me so long to finish. It didn’t help that I was reading it during a really stressful time at work and didn’t feel like reading much. In the end, I put down the physical book and bought an audiobook copy. I’m trying to stop relying on audiobooks but I had to this time. Otherwise, I’d still have been reading it this week.

 I’ve not read Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries. I’ve also not read her debut novel The Rehearsal. So Birnam Wood is my first experience of her writing. Meaning I wasn’t sure what to expect going in. Now I’ve read it, I’m still not entirely sure. She’s clearly a very talented and intelligent writer. This book is well-structured and very readable. However, I also wonder if this book is anything more than a literary experiment. It’s not that it lacks substance but I’m just not entirely convinced that it was everything I wanted it to be. Of course, this says more about me than the book itself, which is undeniably enjoyable. I guess the premise just sounded different in my head.

After all, the story itself isn’t as original as I’d anticipated. It was nuanced and clever but hardly had a unique perspective. The novel introduces us to the guerilla gardening group Birnam Wood. They’re a group of young environmentalists who plant crops on unused land. Their de facto leader Mira Bunting and her co-founder Shelley Noakes have been growing apart and their vision for the group has started to move further apart. Mira is focused on finding funding and taking Birnam Wood worldwide. So, a chance meeting with an American billionaire seems perfect. It all takes place when she reads about an abandoned property that would be perfect for the group. But is Robert Lemoine too good to be true? Will she come to regret getting involved with this businessman when she finds out what he’s really up to?

Birnam Wood started really strong. Eleanor Catton absolutely nailed the social satire of a small group of millennial environmental activists and their struggle to come together. It’s funny and a very entertaining novel. I wasn’t even bothered by the multiple perspectives. The first part is a good read and it sets you up nicely. Or at least it pretends to. You think you can see where the novel is going but it suddenly goes off in another direction. The last part of this novel forces you to readjust your thinking about the whole book. Suddenly the nuance is gone and we’re dealing with good vs bad.

If I had one criticism of this book it’s that the last section doesn’t quite work for me. I know there’s a whole message about environmentalism and big business here. That no matter how hard an individual works, we’re all still fucked. I just don’t know if it worked for me personally. Especially as I loved the opening and what it was setting up, the fact that the book went full throttle into thriller territory was kind of disappointing. You can see that it has been influenced by contemporary crime thrillers but it seemed out of place when compared with the beginning. Of course, the ending does with the Shakespearean tragedy of it all and I think it was still well written. It maybe just threw me off a bit.

What makes Birnam Wood stand out is Catton’s writing. She has the ability to bring these characters to life and is a very clever writer. The book tries to classify itself as a psychological thriller but it’s so much more than that. This delves into politics and social issues. It’s clever and is inspired by plenty of literary sources. I just think there are just a few too many elements for my liking. As well as Birnam Wood and the billionaire, we have a full cast to keep track of. Like Tony, the wannabe journalist who is desperate for a scoop and Sir Owen Darvish and his wife. Some of these have more depth than others and feel more realistic. Others just come down to basic stereotypes. It’s a mixed bag but there are certainly some fascinating figures to get to know.

I can see why people rave about Catton’s writing because she is definitely talented. She’s witty and her dialogue is convincing. It’s not that I disliked Birnam Wood but I was probably expecting something a bit different. Not enough to ruin my enjoyment of the book and certainly not enough to put me off reading more by Catton. 

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