BIRNAM WOOD by ELEANOR CATTON
As some of you may know I am currently undertaking a creative writing PhD with the catchy title Navigating the mystery of future geographies in climate change fiction.
This involves reading and watching a lot of climate change fiction (cli-fi) and the Fantasy-Hive have kindly given me space for a (very) occasional series of articles where I can share my thoughts and observations.
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?
A gripping psychological thriller from the Booker Prize-winning author of The Luminaries, Birnam Wood is Shakespearean in its wit, drama, and immersion in character. A brilliantly constructed consideration of intentions, actions, and consequences, it is an unflinching examination of the human impulse to ensure our own survival.
The first duty of fiction is to entertain, to keep us turning the pages with compelling characters and intriguing plots and Catton – as the youngest ever Booker prize winner for her novel The Luminaries (2013) – certainly has the skill set to craft a gripping story with her new novel Birnam Wood (2023).
Catton gives us a variety of engaging point of view characters each harbouring different agendas.
- Mira Bunting – the de facto leader of the supposedly horizontally structured Birnam Wood collective, a group that flirts with legality in repurposing abandoned scraps of land by planting them with crops to grow and sell.
- Shelley Oakes – Mira’s long-standing and long-suffering deputy, the rock of logistical reliability that shelters and nurtures Mira’s mercurial enthusiasms.
- Tony Gallo – the returning founder member, once a brief romantic interest for Mira, coming home from a four-year sojourn abroad where his investigative journalism career has not taken off as he had hoped.
- Owen and Jill Darvish – the fifty-something couple, the former about to be knighted for services to pest control, the latter heiress to the family estate bordering the remote Korowai National Park.
- Robert Lemoine – the enigmatic but charismatic billionaire who has made a not-yet-public deal to buy the Darvish’s out.
A landslip has isolated the estate by turning a through route into a cul-de-sac. This, together with the Darvish’s extended absence, makes it seem the perfect target for another Birnam Wood guerrilla planting escapade. However, on a solo reconnaissance trip Mira unexpectedly encounters Lemoine. The interests of billionaire capitalist and enthusiastic environmentalist become entangled as the story moves from bucolic through elements of mystery and thriller to somewhere ultimately much darker.
Catton’s prose is just as good as you would expect from a Booker prize winner. Novice writers are often warned against exposition with a ‘show don’t tell’ mantra that eschews pages of description devoted to a character’s backstory and motivation. However, as with all writing, execution matters more than hard and fast adherence to principle. Catton’s introductions to her characters illustrate that exposition is not necessarily all bad. For example, when we meet Mira scanning and scrolling over satellite images of the potential Darvish planting site, we are entirely in her head and thoughts but it is an entertaining place to be as Catton shifts the proximity of her third person narrator.
- Up close we have “It occurred to Mira that the image might have been captured mere moments before the quakes; the motorists pictured might now be dead. She told herself this experimentally as if testing for a pulse; it was more a private habit, formed in girlhood, to berate herself with morbid hypotheticals” (p. 5).
- More distant “Like all self-mythologising rebels, Mira preferred enemies to rivals, and often turned her rivals into enemies, the better to disdain them” (p. 8).
The richness of Catton’s prose extends to descriptions of setting as well as character.
- “…above the black void of the Korowai ranges, the Milky Way was a liquid swash of white” (p. 59).
- Or “The hills on the far side of the lake were bathed in sunlight, their brown and purple slopes transformed to amber, steel and sage, the sky behind them a perfect watercolour fade from azure down to baby blue” (p. 63).
So the writing with its convincing depictions of place and person draws the reader in and on and through the story.
Various people converge on the Darvish estate as the story progresses, not just the Birnam Wood Collective and Lemoine, but Lemoine’s dodgy guards with a hidden mission, and Tony Gallo acting independently of Mira and her band as he searches for a big story, and even Owen and Jill Darvish summoned home for different reasons. It all makes for an increasingly toxic cocktail in a story whose pace ramps up remorselessly towards its climax.
I could have taken issue with the science at a few points such as, the remote surveying that has probed beneath the ground from drones high in the air, the nature of the mineral extraction that is Lemoine’s side-project, the ease with which a severely injured person might move some distance in wooded hilly terrain. There are other aspects of the plot that feel a bit contrived – the confluence of some tabs of acid, a merry gathering, a code change and a sudden job offer that together create a devastating moment of crisis for all concerned. However, events move along with sufficient pace and vigour to sweep the reader over or through such glitches.
The more entertaining the story, the more scope an author may have to slip in some pedagogy of political, moral or environmental messaging through the words and actions of their protagonists. Catton pulls few political punches in the words and actions she gifts her characters. As the author Ken McEwan affirmed “Fiction hates preachiness… Nor do readers like to be hectored” (Tonkin, 2007). However, having activist characters creates opportunities for some deep and searching political discussions, most notably when Tony Gallo on his first return to a group meeting, gets into a lengthy esoteric argument with another member. I remember the persuasive sophistication of the argument but not the detail which I suppose only emphasises the difficulty cli-fi has in delivering complex political messages even to the already-converted such as me. Gallo’s dismay deepens when Mira arrives late at the meeting to reveal the deal Lemoine has offered of funding and support that will move the amateurish and financially fragile Birnam Wood to the next level of incorporation and an enlarged profile and impact. Gallo’s hoped for a prodigal return ends with him leaving in high dudgeon, after the group has accepted Lemoine’s generosity at face value.
For the reader, however, Catton lays bare the amoral venality of Lemoine with a credible depiction of someone who thinks their wealth has put them above the ordinary considerations and obligations of humanity. He is cold and manipulative to his employees. “He got out his phone and dicked about on twitter for a few minutes more, just to remind them that their time was his to waste if he wanted to” (p. 84). He delights in making people feel awkward in his presence, yet is capable of charm when it suits his purpose. Lemoine’s own vision of himself, as Catton presents it, is of
- “the kind of man who saw every crisis as an opportunity” (p. 79) (The kind who would have gouged profits out of covid?!).
- “a builder in the Randian sense” (p. 79) (Channelling Ayn Rand and the capitalist ‘heroes’ of Atlas Shrugged (1957)?)
- “hedging his bets against any number of potential global catastrophes that he himself was doing absolutely nothing to prevent and might even be taking active measures to encourage if there was a profit to be made” (p. 79) (Feeling secure in the notion that wealth in sufficient excess will cushion its owner against any disaster)
Outwardly he tells Mira his success is all a matter of “luck and loopholes and being in the right place at the right time, and compound growth taking care of the rest,” (p. 198) but inwardly Catton tells us Lemoine “had possessed ever since he could remember a sense that he was special, that he was better than other children” (p. 226). We are given a compelling insight into that narcissistic sense of entitlement that turns power into corruption – the mantra that “I got this, so I must deserve it” or “I can do this, so I should” – be it paying oneself inflated bonuses, pushing crony contracts, or exploiting the law.
Catton has Lemoine reminisce on his upbringing and how absent parents an ill grand-parent, and long held secrets drove his psychopathic self-reliance. She shares his ultimate satisfaction of rejecting a call from his estranged father on the successful billion dollar flotation of Lemoine’s company. Tellingly, Catton writes “His sovereignty was his revenge” (p. 227) which could be read as a reference to William Rees-Mogg’s polemic The Sovereign Individual (Davidson & Ress-Mogg, 1997) which describes how in a global world of supremely mobile wealth the elite individuals can rise above the constraints and chains (regulation and obligations?!) of citizenship in mere nation states. Certainly, Lemoine epitomises that detached aloofness of the Sovereign Individuals of late-stage capitalism – one that is bitingly critiqued by Catton in her depiction of both Lemoine’s cold self-interest and Tony’s despairing idealism.
Lemoine for all his awfulness is more amoral than immoral, like capitalism itself. Capitalism is a self-perpetuating, self-protecting system whose instinctive measures to
(A) safeguard its profits and protect its own interests,
(B) an inevitable pressure towards deregulation, exploitation, price gouging and political manipulation to remove/minimise regulation.
One can no more say Capitalism is evil, than one can say a wolf is evil – but they are both dangerous. They both need regulation, training – chaining even – if they are to inhabit the same space as a fair and sustainable human civilisation. The unfolding story of Birnam Wood reveals a lupine cunning to Lemoine that is as captivating as it is horrific.
However, Catton, is careful not to cast Mira, Tony and the Birnam Wood activists as saintly innocents – passengers in events. Sarah Dimick has written about the continuum of guilt in the climate crisis and how cli-fi literature addresses guilt (2018), and Jon Raymond in his novel Denial (2022) flags up the non-zero culpability of consumers as agents in the developing crisis. A point Tony echoes in saying “You’re never going to address the root cause of the problem, which is the market itself – and how we’ve all becomes so individualistic and consumeristic” (p. 99).
As Tony goes on to observe, in a popular kindle highlight,
“There’s something so joyless about the left these days…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” (p. 102).
He returns to the theme of the divisions within progressive movements
“why was it that people on the left were always talking about who was actually on the left… it was pretty off-putting to be treated like a double dealer all the time” (p. 147).
and having afforded his world trip through inherited wealth, Tony also embraces the “kind of excessive rugged practicality” of roughing it outdoors to prove he is “not just yet another Marxist intellectual cliché, not just yet another armchair critic with soft hands and smug opinions” (p. 160).
So Tony neatly illustrates the contradictions and vulnerabilities in progressive movements, struggling to establish an internal consensus of legitimacy while fending off external accusations of being hypocritical or patronising. Dimick’s notions of a continuum of guilt are relevant here, in that if we can accept a degree of our own culpability we are more able to rise to our responsibility to those less at fault, while also demanding accountability and action from those more at fault. But there are also lessons for activism in not belittling people for their failures either by action or omission, but instead inspiring them with the opportunities they can deliver.
The Birnam Wood Collective illustrate another conflict within progressive climate action. As George Marshall has highlighted in Don’t Even Think About It (Marshall, 2014) there is a certain puritanical disempowering joylessness to climate change movements that present narratives of doom and gloom, as though parading down Oxford Street wearing a “The End is Nigh” placard. The dystopian forecasts of early cli-fi have been similarly off putting and Matthew Schneider-Mayerson highlighted how hope, joy and effective collective action could be more inspiring narratives for Climate change fiction to present (Ted Lasso Is an Unexpected Masterclass in Environmental Storytelling, 2021). This is captured in the air of joy and sociability (and a little bit of romantic tension) in the group dynamics of Mira’s gathering of planters camped out in a sheep shearing shed on the Darvish estate.
However, there is also the underlying deceit that Lemoine has not played straight with them. In trying to move from a fringe group – where at times everybody feels “squeamishly, just a tiny bit like members of a cult” (p. 157) – to one with national or even global reach, the group has been lured and possibly irrevocably distorted by a billionaire’s dollars. It may not be the $44 billion that has been paid for a popular but increasingly subverted, less effective and arguably poisoned social media forum. However, the power of money to corrupt idealism is effectively depicted – particular in Shelley’s transition through the events of the novel. As Mira says in confrontation with Lemoine
“What’s even more fucked up is that you totally have it in your power to make things better. Like, in all of history, there has literally never been a group of people better equipped to avert catastrophe than the billionaires alive today” (p. 200)
– yet Lemoine, and so many of his fellow billionaires, prefer to spend their money emasculating and traducing what they perceive as opposition, as threats to a wealth they could never spend in a hundred lifetimes.
Shahidha Bari’s review in The Financial Times bills Birnam Wood as ‘an explosive climate change thriller’ in ‘the expanding literary subgenre of “cli-fi”’ (2023). I – and others[i] – would argue that cli-fi has long passed beyond notions of subgenre, some cosy niche within science-fiction, and is more a theme that can be detected and depicted across a range of genres. However, paradoxically Birnam Wood makes scant mention of climate change itself, so much so that one might almost think it should be termed Cap-Fi or Bil-Fi rather than Cli-Fi given its central plot of small-time eco-group becoming entangled with big-time capitalist billionaire. But then, the authors and screenwriters of Cli-Fi have resorted to a variety of settings and allegories to try and get a clear message across. For example the film Don’t Look Up (McKay, 2021) makes absolutely no mention of climate change. However, its impending extinction event comet strike presents a brilliant allegory for the climate crisis and our collectively incoherent and ineffective response, sabotaged as it is by commercial self-interest, political venality and wilful human apathy.
In a similar way, Birnam Wood offers another allegory for the self-inflicted crisis we face. The ruthless Lemoine serves as a synecdoche for rampant libertarian capitalism. Mira Bunting and her fractured and fractious collective showcase the divisions, vulnerabilities and existential angst of progressive movements. The fictional Korowai National Park could stand for the whole Earth. Viewing Birnam Wood as capitalist-fi or billionaire-fi one might pigeonhole it within eco-criticism rather than cli-fi. However, capitalism and climate change are entangled in each other. I might not go as far as Kim Stanley Robinson in his somewhat reductive argument that Capitalism and climate change are ‘two sides of the same coin, cause and effect’ (Robinson, 2018). As Clark notes, in describing climate change as a wicked problem, it “has no unitary object” or no single cause “to confront” (Clark, 2010). Nonetheless, while capitalism may not be the only culprit in climate change, on Dimick’s continuum of guilt – it is right up at one end!
There is a traditional view of fiction that – in putting readers in a character’s shoes – literature can help develop empathy. The hope of much cli-fi is that by building empathy for those adversely impacted by climate change (for example Maria in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2015)) readers may become more aware of the issues in climate change and more moved to act. However, empathy is not the only emotion, and as Ursula McTaggart has noted (2020) in an analysis of Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975) – hope and also anger are useful emotional vectors for moving people to act. Shahidha Bari, at the conclusion of her review notes that “Catton’s heart-racing thriller keeps us guessing to the end. But if there’s danger everywhere, there’s hope too – and that’s a remarkable accomplishment.” However, my own feelings on closing Eleanor Canon’s finely crafted and fast-moving tale were definitely more of anger.
Abbey, E. (1975). The Monkey Wrench Gang. Philapdelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Bacigalupi, P. (2015). The Water Knife. New York: Knopf.
Bari, S. (2023, February 16). Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton – an explosive climate-change thriller. Retrieved from ft.com: https://www.ft.com/content/004b34bb-5e3c-4e14-901f-c11bee082648
Catton, E. (2013). The Luminaries. New York: Litte, Brown and Company.
Catton, E. (2023). Birnam Wood. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
Clark, T. (2010). Some Climate Change Ironies: Deconstruction, Environmental Politics and the Closure of Ecocriticism. Oxford Literary Review, 32(1), 131-149.
Davidson, J. D., & Ress-Mogg, L. W. (1997). The Sovereign Individual, Mastering the transition to the Information Age. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Dimick, S. (2018). ‘From Species to Suspect: Climate Crime in Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer’. Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, 51(3), 19-35.
Goodbody. (2020). Cli-Fi – Genre of the Twenty-First Century? Narrative Strategies in Contemporary Fiction and Film. In M. Löschnigg, & M. Braunecker, Green Matters: Ecocultural functions of literature (pp. 131-153). Leiden: Brill.
Johns-Putra, A. (2016, March/April). Climate change in literature and literary studies: From cli-fi, climate change theatre and eco-poetry to ecocriticism and climate change criticism. (M. Hulme, Ed.) WIREs Climate Change,, 7, 266-282. doi: 10.1002/wcc.385
Marshall, G. (2014). Don’t Even Think About It; why are brains are wired to ignore climate change. New York: Bloomsbury.
McKay, A. (Director). (2021). Don’t Look Up [Motion Picture].
McTaggart, U. (2020). Literature that Prompts Action: Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang and the Formation of Earth First! ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Enviornment, 27(2), 307-326. doi:10.1093/isle/isz120
Rand, A. (1957). Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House.
Raymond, J. (2022). Denial. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Robinson, K. S. (2018, November 2016). To Slow Down Climate Change, We Need To Take On Capitalism. Retrieved July 23, 2022, from Buzzfeednews.com: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/kimstanleyrobinson/climate-change-capitalism-kim-stanley-robinson
Schneider-Mayerson, M. (2021, September 17). Ted Lasso Is an Unexpected Masterclass in Environmental Storytelling. Retrieved from gzimodo.com: https://gizmodo.com/ted-lasso-is-an-unexpected-masterclass-in-environmental-1847695754
Tonkin, B. (2007, April 20). Ian McEwan: I hang on to hope in a tide of fear. The Independent. Retrieved from enjoyment.indepdendent.co.uk: http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/books/features/article2424436.ece
[i] As Adeline Johns-Putra noted “It is probably more accurate to identify climate change as a topic found in many genres” (2016, p. 267) while Goodbody observed “Cli-fi is not a genre in the scholarly sense, since it lacks the plot formulas and stylistic conventions that define genres such as science fiction and the western. It tends rather to borrow and blend elements of different genres (thriller, post-apocalyptic novel, crime, fantasy, horror)” (2020, p. 136)