ELEANOR CATTON Birnam Wood. Reviewed by Ann Skea
New Zealand guerilla gardeners meet a US doomsday prepper in this new novel from Booker-winner Eleanor Catton.
Twenty-nine-year-old horticulturalist Mira Bunting is looking for some under-utilised land that she and the activist Birnam Wood collective can quietly develop. The Birnam Wood volunteers cultivate whatever vacant land they can find, give half the yield of any crop to the landowner in exchange for the use of water and electricity, and anything that is left after they have fed themselves is sold to provide seeds etc. or donated to the needy.
Permission is not always obtained, and Mira can lie convincingly if they are discovered trespassing. She is also adept at adopting online aliases, and is currently presenting herself as a retired 68-year-old woman with a nest egg that she wants to invest in some rural real estate. When Mira studies an online map of it, the farm at Thorndike, which the estate agent had offered but then withdrawn from sale, looks as if it might suit their purposes. The area has just been partly isolated by a landslide and the paddocks seem empty and currently unused.
A few more searches reveal that the owner, Owen Darvish, of Darvish Pest Control, has just been knighted for services to conservation.
Mira was scowling. It annoyed her, almost as a matter of principle, that anyone of this man’s age, race, gender, wealth, and associated privilege should use his power – allegedly – for good … should possess – allegedly – the very kind of rural authenticity that she herself most envied and pursued.
She decides to visit the farm and investigate.
Meanwhile, Shelley Noakes, Mira’s long-time friend and associate, has been considering her life and has decided that she originally joined the Birnam Wood collective just to try and escape her constant feelings of inadequacy. Now:
Shelley wanted out. Out of the group; out of the suffocating moral censure, the pretend fellow feeling, the constant obligatory thrift; out of financial peril; out of the flat; out of her [‘not romantic’] relationship with Mira.
What disrupts the plans of both women, however, is the sudden appearance of Robert Lemoine.
Mira has been exploring the seemingly deserted Thorndike property and has come across a small airstrip with a four-seater amphibious plane parked on it. Initially there was nobody about, but when she returns to the airstrip later, a man suddenly steps out from behind the plane and demands to know who she is and what she is doing. Mira lies that she is scoping the location for a film company but the man refutes this, demands the camera she carries to suggest innocent trespassing, and finds that it is unused and unusable. Then he addresses her by her name.
Robert Lemoine, Mira discovers when she later searches for information about him, is an American billionaire, a venture capitalist, a ‘serial entrepreneur’, and company director of Autonomo, which builds sophisticated surveillance drones. Like other Silicon Valley doomsday preppers who plan to survive the coming breakdown of society, he has bought a property in New Zealand and is, ostensibly, building a bunker.
One of Lemoine’s drones had been tracking Mira from the time she entered the Darvish property. It had taken him ‘barely 20 minutes to execute a man-in-the-middle attack’ on her phone and gain complete access to Mira’s online data ‘both present and historical’; further, ‘he also had the power to intercept and change her messages in both directions’.
Lemoine accepts Mira’s confession about what she is really doing on the property, and he is interested in what she tells him about Birnam Wood. He sees potential for investment in the collective as a way of satisfying the New Zealand requirements for granting new residents a passport, so he seems to support her plans:
‘I’ll stay out of your way if you stay out of mine.’
She was still confused. ‘Why?’
He smiled. ‘Why?’
‘Yeah. Why would you do that?’
‘Because you intrigue me, Mira Bunting, and I want to see your garden grow.’
Lemoine, for all his seeming charm, is a clever, coldly calculating con-man and he ‘could recognise his own’. He sees Mira’s willingness to trespass, her ability to lie, her flagrant defiance of him and her practice of assuming false identities. ‘Mira Bunting, he thought, tasting the syllables, you little criminal.’
He has taken pains to perfect his persona as a ‘far-sighted, short-selling, risk embracing kleptocrat … a status-symbol survivalist hedging his bets against any number of potential global catastrophes’. He is still in the process of buying the farm but he is already building a bunker there as cover for the mining of huge deposits of rare-earth elements that he knows to be on the land. Mira Bunting’s collective would, he decides, be an appropriate shield for his activities on the farm: ‘a fine piece of camouflage’; he would be ‘Lemoine the libertarian’. So far, in spite of the landslip, ‘the extraction site remained secure’, and he has already organised removal of the rich slurry from the site and from New Zealand. He will sell it and become ‘by several orders of magnitude, the richest person who ever lived’.
While Mira is away, Shelley has bumped into Mira’s one-time lover, Tony Gallo. An old supporter of Birnam Wood, Tony has been teaching overseas for a few years. He and Mira had parted awkwardly but he wants to see her again, so Shelley invites him to the meeting (the ‘hui’) Mira has called to tell the collective her news about the Darvish farm and Lemoine’s offer of financial support.
Tony, who is an idealist, is radical, anarchic and vehement in his opposition to capitalism and many other isms. He embarrasses everyone at the hui by fiercely challenging one member (ranting, really) about her views on a number of topics, and when Mira explains Lemoine’s proposed financial support he is predictably outraged and accuses her of ‘getting into bed with the enemy’, ‘selling out’, and compromising the principles of the group.
He walks out of the meeting but wants to find out more about Lemoine; and he decides that the offer to Mira and the incursion into New Zealand of super-rich doom-preppers intent on becoming citizens would make a good story – a ‘scoop’ with potential. So, he goes to Thorndike to investigate. What he comes across there shocks him and makes him look deeper.
Owen Darvish and his wife have been introduced earlier in the story and established as likeable characters. When Tony contacts Owen, the questions he asks send Owen to the farm to see what is going on. From that point, things escalate. There is a death in which Shelley and Mira are both implicated. Lemoine, the expert, corrupt problem-solver, finds a way to cover this up, but Tony’s discoveries threaten his whole enterprise.
The hunting down of Tony in rugged landscape, the use of drones to follow and detect people, and the presence of armed guards, make the action tense and full of suspense.
The slower early part of the book, as Catton develops her characters’ personalities, documents Tony’s rants, and follows Mira and Shelley as they examine their own lives, work the soil, and reflect on current political dilemmas (the ‘sorry’ question, cultural appropriation, inter-generational guilt, for example) – all of which is far outweighed by the threats, dangers and uncertainties they face, and the cynicism and cleverness of Lemoine and his carefully controlled manipulation of others.
Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood turns out to be a gripping thriller, skilfully exploiting the personalities, motivations and choices of her characters, and testing what each of them is willing to do to survive. The ending is disturbing, not least because it leaves the reader to imagine what might happen next.
Eleanor Catton Birnam Wood Granta 2023 PB 432pp $32.99
Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (ann.skea.com) are archived by the British Library.
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