The new Catton: “a great book”

Good books accompany your non-reading life; you carry them in your head even when you’re not reading them. When you close them to go and stretch your legs, the world around you is filtered through their pages. When the news of Jacinda Ardern’s resignation came over the car radio I’d just emerged from a bush walk at Hinewai, Banks Peninsula’s regenerating forest reserve, with ideas about politics, corruption, activism and the environment swirling in my head. I was most of the way through reading Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood, a literary thriller set in 2017 – just before Ardern swept into power, carrying with her so much hope for so many – and the world tilted on its axis for a moment. Good books will do that.

Birnam Wood lives up to the promise made when the novel’s acquisition was reported way back in 2017, and therefore conceived before that change in power, perhaps in reaction to New Zealand’s political situation at the time. It promised a Peter Thiel-like character who crosses paths with the anti-capitalist guerilla gardening collective Birnam Wood. But while Thiel may have been the inspiration for the book’s antagonist, Catton’s Robert Lemoine would probably dismiss Thiel as an amateur. While word got out that Thiel was a survivalist looking to build a bolthole by Lake Wanaka, Lemoine only appears to be a bunker-building, billionaire doomsday prepper. It’s a front for something much more sinister. And while Peter Thiel’s application for resource consent was rejected last year, Lemoine wouldn’t have asked for consent; he’d have just gone ahead and built it, pulling in favours with his piles of cash. He would rather pay a fine than ask for permission, and that’s only if he got caught.

Mira Bunting, the closest thing the collective has to a leader, encounters Lemoine while scouting out a farmland property near Thorndike, a tiny South Island town on the edge of fictional Korowai National Park, which has been cut off by a landslide and is no longer a stopover for tourists. Lemoine, a surveillance wizard, has secretly bought the land from the newly knighted Sir Owen and Lady Darvish for his hideaway, and entered into an irritating (to him) agreement with them to use his company’s drones for conservation purposes.

Mira hopes to steal a patch of land for some illicit crop planting. It’s what Birnam Wood do – draw attention to inequality and waste by planting food in unlikely, unused spaces. Lemoine is intrigued by her, and offers to fund the non-profit, which Mira warily accepts, putting her in potential conflict with Birnam Wood’s ideological stance, and other Birnam Wood members. But Lemoine is up to something, and Mira should know better.

To title the book – and the guerilla gardening collective at its heart – Birnam Wood is a solid signal that the story is Shakespearian in scope and intent. Power-hungry Lemoine (“If he pulled this off – and he had never failed in any of his ventures yet – he would become, by several orders of magnitude, the richest person who had ever lived”) must have never seen Macbeth if he thinks inviting an outfit called Birnam Wood anywhere near the land he is exploiting is a good idea. After all, Macbeth is warned that when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, Macbeth will be vanquished – but Macbeth dismisses the prophecy because how can a forest up sticks and walk to a battleground, any more than a man can be not born of woman?

Like any good Jack Reacher novel, it’s got henchmen in black SUVs, guns, car chases, and military mercenaries

The novel wears its ecothriller label well, and fans of Lee Child won’t be disappointed to read it either. The plotting is taut, the transgressions fascinating and intriguing, and like any good Jack Reacher novel, it’s got henchmen in black SUVs, guns, car chases, military mercenaries, and people who can make phone calls that get things taken care of, no questions asked. Like Child, Catton doesn’t just show the protagonist’s point of view; she gets (expertly) inside the heads of an array of characters, all with different ideals, motivations, blindspots and prejudices. It’s this exploration and insight into the psyches of the characters that really cements this as great book – a ripping, character-driven, ideas-laden yarn.

Its omniscient point of view lampoons everyone, ruthlessly at times, yet finds the good in everyone as well. The narrator takes characters seriously, recognises that nobody is morally pure or purely evil, and has an intolerance for the unsubtle, the unnuanced.

What is clear in the book is that everybody, to some extent, is driven by ambition, and sometimes that ambition conflicts with the characters’ own ideologies and morals. Everybody is given the benefit of the doubt, but also enough rope to hang themselves if need be.

Mira, arguably the main protagonist, is rounded out by others’ perspectives. She is, through the eyes of Shelley, her offsider and flatmate, “uninterested in profit and at the same time obsessed by growth” and “wildly inconsistent” with “a peculiar relationship with money.” To Shelley, “seditious, independent-minded Mira – suddenly seemed to be just the sort of trendy big-talking renegade one could imagine being contracted by the government as a black-ops adviser…”

Shelley, one of the more interesting and perceptive characters (at least at the beginning), has the ability to read people and therefore to subtly manipulate them, even as she is herself being manipulated: “…the clearest sign that Mira was practicing deception of some kind was when she began agreeing with everything that Shelley said.” It’s Shelley who the narrator uses as a filter to step back and explain the dynamics of Birnam Wood best to the reader in the novel’s beginning; she describes it as having two temperamental factions: the ‘idealogues’ and the ‘do-gooders’. They’re a complicated bunch, to be sure. Birnam Wood is seen as some kind of start-up agitator in the vein of Airbnb and Uber; of course, in a nice twist of dramatic irony, both of those ‘disruptors’ have not held up well since 2017, creating their own problems and becoming their own capitalist behemoths, exploiting workers and gutting neighbourhoods, creating housing shortages and pushing up rental prices for locals. It would surely now be considered unethical by the group to support either brand.

When Robert Lemoine makes the conflicting offer to fund Birnam Wood, Mira is blinded by possibility and a touch of sexual frisson; yes, she will take money from a billionaire venture capitalist, but she will find a way to justify it to herself and her fellow gardeners.

But Lemoine is up to no good and he collects Mira and Birnam Wood as part of his camouflage, along with his plans to build a bunker: “Playing the survivalist afforded him the perfect cover; the bunker was the perfect Trojan horse.” Lemoine is after the rare-earth elements he’s discovered on the land, and is extracting them illegally and secretly. I had to look up what rare-earth elements are, but for the purposes of the book, I didn’t really need to know – he might as well have been mining Unobtanium. All I needed to know was the power and riches it would bring him.

But even Lemoine, the dastardly villain, who thinks nothing of his illicit works causing human death (“Five dead was nothing, thought Lemoine. Five dead, in the scheme of things, was basically no dead at all”) has his moments. He has a sympathetic backstory straight out of a spy film. The cameo of a disgraced right wing talkback host hoping to find some investment for his new ‘platform’, and Lemoine’s utter contempt for his sycophancy, is delightfully satisfying. You can’t help warm to Lemoine (and Catton) in this instant, and see why Mira has complicated feelings towards him. But he’s playing them. He’s playing everyone.

He moves with the assuredness of Jack Reacher but without the moral compass, towering strength, and hands that can hold mountains. He has money so he doesn’t need those things, just a light spritzing of his hair with texturizer after a shower, and intravenous rehydration after a long haul flight.

Another significant character is Tony, a past love interest of Mira’s who has returned from overseas determined to make a name for himself as a journalist, though he has mostly just blogged up to that point. He’s still burning with embarrassment after being called out on a trauma-porn/poverty-tourist travel piece some time back. He’s idealistic but jaded, aware of his privilege and anxious to prove he’s “not just yet another Marxist intellectual cliché, not just yet another armchair critic with soft hands and smug opinions.” He rails against the “defensive anti-intellectualism that defined his country’s culture.” I was reminded of this much-maligned quote (and backhanded compliment) from John Key: “While our literary heroes may never challenge the glory and respect given to our All Blacks, we still need role models to inspire us”, and the whinging reception Catton received when daring to criticise the National government after her Booker win.

Tony smells a rat with Lemoine’s interest in Birnam Wood, and sets out for Thorndike to prove it and himself: an open-source detective who would make Bellingcat proud, writing in his head the investigative article that will make his career (“I heard the drones before I saw them, he wrote, and then he sat back, held up his notebook like a hymnal, and, in a whisper, said the words aloud.”).

It’s easy to laugh at Tony, but like all the characters, he has redeeming qualities. He is a carrier – some may argue a little too heavy-handedly – for some of the central ideas in the book, in particular the idea that the left is in danger of imploding before the necessary work is done.

“There’s something so joyless about the left these days,” Tony, (or Catton), says, “so forbidding and self-denying. And policing. No one’s having any fun”

In an early scene he takes the rest of Birnam Wood to task for being too ineffectually woke, for not going far enough in their anti-capitalist stance, for unwittingly becoming just a new way to prop up capitalism with intersectionality, polyamory and dietary preferences. The scene goes on for pages, and as I read it I got the uncomfortable feeling that all the participants in the argument were somehow aspects of my own mind, having the kinds of disagreements I have with myself as I try and work out what I think.

“There’s something so joyless about the left these days,” Tony, (or Catton), says, “so forbidding and self-denying. And policing. No one’s having any fun, we’re all just sitting around scolding each other for doing too much or not enough …we’ve all become so fucking individualistic and consumeristic that we can’t even conceive of anything anymore except in market terms.” The left, the book seems to be saying, will eat itself.  

Of course, Tony is guilty of the things he is accusing his peers of; he’s as scolding and self-denying as the next person, examining his white male privilege and anxiously trying to rise above it. What I took away from the scene – which is extraordinary for the way it lays down all the things that the white liberal left is grappling with, much of it too inflammatory to admit out loud – is that we take stances without thinking them through, and being contradictory, hypocritical even, is not a moral failing. You don’t have to fall on one side or the other 100% and dutifully perform all aspects of that viewpoint for all to see.

He finishes it with, “I mean – intersectionality, neoliberalism, what’s the difference? It’s the same old bullshit.” As funny and annoying as Tony is – who hasn’t wanted to tune out when a young man so sure of his opinions is bashing everyone in hearing distance with them? – he plays a useful ideological Devil’s advocate.


Do we remember how the National government wanted to open the national parks up for mining in 2010, and the public outcry and backtracking that ensued? Tony does. He revels in the memory of the victory for activism, “a recent triumph for democracy and the left”. The idea of the government surveying the parks for exploitable resources was surely one of the sparks of the idea for the novel – and yet was it a victory? The Labour/New Zealand First government in 2017 promised “no new mines on conservation land” – there’s that hope again – and it is only this week, after Ardern’s resignation, that a bill is finally being drafted. I realised that I thought ‘national parks’ and ‘conservation land’ were the same thing, and that Tony’s victory is looking a little more hollow than I had first thought.   

If there’s a warning here, it’s that puritanical leftist ideas will hold the environmental cause back

Birnam Wood’s idealism and its hope for sustainability is in direct odds with Lemoine’s hope to extract all he can from the land and then bugger off to sell it. Professor Bronwyn Hayward recently pointed me to the work of Catton’s grandfather, William Catton, who compared modern humans, and their dependence on fossil fuels, to algae feeding on dead organic matter – a ‘boom-bust population cycle well-known to biologists’ – which runs out of resources and dies away. William Catton talked about the “tragic story of human success” and if that’s not an apt tag line for Birnam Wood, I don’t know what is.

He also wrote about social systems – society-wide versions of Birnam Wood-type collectives perhaps – being the only way to mitigate the impacts of the voracious consumption of resources. I would have paid good money to hear him in the café debating with Tony. I suspect Robert Lemoine wouldn’t have given a toss what either of them thought.

If there’s a warning here, it’s that puritanical leftist ideas (and bad management) will hold the environmental cause back, and that currently those with money hold more power than governments. But if, in the words of the great Canadian storyteller Ivan Coyote, stories are the best tools we have to change the world, then thrillers like this, that make you consider these warnings, might just have an impact.

I want nothing more than for people to read the book so I can discuss the ending with them. I can’t describe what happens, but I can imagine a film version, where the final shot is from a camera mounted on a drone – one of Robert Lemoine’s drones perhaps – pulling up and away, surveying the scene below.

Bring it after me

I will not be afraid of death and bane,

Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $40) is in every single bookstore in New Zealand. As the biggest literary event in New Zealand for a long, long time, the only sane response to it is to go completely overboard, and so three more reviews will appear in ReadingRoom over the next three days, by Steve Braunias, Miro Bilbrough, and David Eggleton.

Rachael King has recently returned to the most important thing about literature - writing it - after a long, brilliant and successful tenure as co-director of the Christchurch WORD literary festival. She...

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