A landslide has closed the Korowai Pass on New Zealand's South Island, cutting oﬀ the town of Thorndike and leaving a sizable farm abandoned. The disaster presents an opportunity for Birnam Wood, an undeclared, unregulated, sometimes-criminal, sometimes-philanthropic guerrilla gardening collective that plants crops wherever no one will notice. For years, the group has struggled to break even. To occupy the farm at Thorndike would mean a shot at solvency at last. But the enigmatic American billionaire Robert Lemoine also has an interest in the place: he has snatched it up to build his end-times bunker, or so he tells Birnam's founder, Mira, when he catches her on the property. He's intrigued by Mira, and by Birnam Wood; although they're poles apart politically, it seems Lemoine and the group might have enemies in common. But can Birnam trust him? And, as their ideals and ideologies are tested, can they trust one another?
A big book, a sophisticated page-turner, that does something improbable: It filters anarchist, monkey-wreching environmental politics, a generational (anti-baby boomer) cri de coeur and a downhill-racing plot through a Stoppardian sense of humor. The result is thrilling. Birnam Wood nearly made me laugh with pleasure. The whole thing crackles, like hair drawn through a pocket comb ... Catton has felt like the real thing out of the gate. One reason is her way with dialogue. Her characters are almost disastrously candid. They talk the way real people talk, but they’re freer, ruder, funnier. Alongside the wordplay and in-jokes, and the topping of those jokes, unexpected abrasions pile up. You sense the world being thrashed out in front of your eyes ... Another reason is her knowingness — her thinginess. Catton is at home in the physical world, and her details land ... Finally, there is Catton’s generosity, to her characters and to her readers. She turns her men and women around and around in appraisal, allowing the available light to alternately flatter and roast them ... An ardent ecological novel, but it’s not a softheaded one. That’s another reason it’s a rarity.
Takes its title and other cues from the realm of Macbeth, and distributes the responsibility for a downward spiral among its players, though the blame is unevenly laid ... The book begins gaily enough, and the setup sometimes recalls another English writer, Jane Austen ... The issue of climate apocalypse casts a shadow over the text until the end, though it is only directly raised a couple of times. Instead, Catton deftly constructs a political and environmental universe that has broadly capitulated to corruption, where individuals absentmindedly microdose poison each day until they are doomed ... The writing...is action-driven and shares some of the plainness of the thriller genre, and is also presumably a result of Catton’s recent screenwriting experience. I missed the peculiar literary flourishes of her two previous novels ... As the precise nature of the novel’s climax came into view, I found it at first faintly ridiculous, and then, finally, persuasive and devastating.
Eleanor Catton's Birnam Wood is one of 2023's most sophisticated, stylish and searching literary works, a full-on triumph from a generational talent ... Employs the thriller form to magnificent effect ... Catton writes languid sentences that fold back on themselves amid a lift of conjunctions and prepositional phrases ... But in its scope and execution it moves beyond these novels just as smoothly as Lemoine's plane glides upward.