Books editor Claire Mabey reviews Birnam Wood, the long-awaited third novel from Booker Prize-winning Aotearoa writer Eleanor Catton.
Crouching quietly at the heart of Birnam Wood is the real-world plight of a critically endangered New Zealand bird, the fairy tern/tara-iti. At the time of writing this review there are fewer than 40 fairy tern/tara-iti left, and just nine breeding pairs. The survival of the species depends on the sanctity of its breeding grounds, beaches North of Auckland: Mangawhai, Waipu, Pakiri, North Kaipara Head. Hovering over those strips of sand, where the birds employ camouflage to avoid predators and threats, are anxious volunteers and DOC workers: desperate to see chicks survive into adulthood and for the tiny population to swell with each breeding season.
Just north of Mangawhai beach sits the private Tara Iti Golf Course and its adjacent luxury housing development. A 16-minute drive away is Mangawhai Village and chocolatiers Bennett’s, on whose website you can monitor the progress of fairy terns. I passed by the shop recently. It’s hard to miss: large, smart-looking, European in aesthetic, with enormous four-wheel drive car-creatures parked outside. Locals talk about the golf course and how the millionaires who built it also set up the Shorebirds Trust, ostensibly to boost the scrabble to protect the fairy terns, from whom the golf club took its name. A drone’s eye view may observe the golf course and associated properties as a nest: helicopters buzzing in and out, carrying flourishing animals to and fro, bedding in so close to the terns down there, hopelessly oblivious, in the sand. Between the mutterings of locals, the compromises and public-facing exchanges of money, land and grand gesture, the drama becomes complicated to the point of obfuscation: the fairy tern is there but not there.
Catton’s story burrows – enthrallingly, terrifyingly – into this precise entanglement. In her electrifying eco-thriller the New Zealand fairy tern becomes a conservation project that both connects and serves the interests of predatory billionaire Robert Lemoine and beknighted boomer, Thorndike local (via his wife, Jill) Owen Darvish. When their dealings are threatened by the ambitions of middle-class pseudo-activists Mira Bunting, Shelley Noakes and Tony Gallo, the cacophony of ego, ideals, sex, and politics becomes louder than the land upon which it all plays out. In short, Birnam Wood takes Shakespeare’s Macbeth for a tramp through New Zealand’s class and environmental battlegrounds and with those ingredients has produced a breathtaking analysis of human psychology in three acts – personal, political and public. Ultimately it asks whether we have, as a species at large, the survival instincts required to withstand an alarming new breed of technology-fuelled predation; whether we have the instincts to respond adequately to the warnings signs, environmental and political, that fight for our attention every day.
Catton’s battle ground is the fictional but familiar Korowai National Park and a slice of private farmland that abuts it, on the fringes of the town of Thorndike. Like every great drama, every player harbours a strong desire: Mira Bunting wants her stealthy, radical gardening collective, Birnam Wood, to have a shot at being solvent by extending their operation to growing food on the expansive piece of dormant Darvish farmland; Billionaire drone-making tech-CEO Lemoine wants the Darvish land so that he can camouflage his more sinister money-making intentions in the mineral-rich National Park; Sir Owen and Lady Jill Darvish want to keep their public profile sweet and money offered for the farm by Lemoine means a conservation profile to achieve it. And Tony Gallo, well Tony wants to be Nicky Hager: “Aloud he said, ‘Jesus Christ,’ and then again, ‘Jesus Christ,’ and then, hushed in wonderment, he said, ‘I am going to be so fucking famous.’”
On the macro level, the loyalties and intentions of the players in Birnam Wood appear obvious, almost archetypal. However, one of the many exquisite thrills of this book is the way the narrator drops in, like a new breed of drone, to surveil with at times horrifying accuracy and precision the inner workings of every character and the contradictions therein. Catton is astounding in her ability to, on one level, turn our attentions to alarms, blaring loud as the witches warning in Macbeth; and on another level, investigate the complex, human preoccupations that blur and dull those glaring signposts like the buffets of a helicopter’s whirr.
Take, for example, this slice of Shelley Noakes, the administrative engine of the collective Birnam Wood, who burns quietly along Mira’s side, the picture of a middle-class millennial stuck between her tentative nature and her desire to transcend it: “For the first few months of their friendship, all that Shelley had known about Mira’s parents had been that they were former hippies who had each stood for their local constituency – her mother for the Green Party, her father for Labour – in subsequent elections, without success; and that Mira’s mother had a son from a previous relationship, Mira’s half-brother Rufus, who was the lead guitarist in a touring rock band and whom Mira’s father apparently adored. They sounded wonderfully enlightened, and the fact that Mira saw them only intermittently Shelley took as further proof of the psychological maturity that Mira found wanting in everybody else. She began to feel embarrassed that her own family convened each week for their parochial Sunday lunch, where invariably the conversation centred on, and was directed at, the dog – and she was even more embarrassed whenever Mira asked to tag along.”
Catton’s gift for interiority is mind-bending. There were many times reading the novel that I felt, with a mix of wonder and pure squirm, that my very outline was being traced with Catton’s subtle knife.
It is important to state at this point that Birnam Wood is working within a Pākehā framework: the characters are educated, middle-class Pākehā with progressive aspirations and the clunky frustrations born from that same thing. There is a particularly potent, soul-shrinking yet hysterically funny scene early in the novel where members of Birnam Wood gather for a meeting. Returning former member Tony Gallo makes himself unwelcome with unstoppered tirades on the many hypocrisies of the progressive left: “‘There’s something so joyless about the left these days,’ Tony continued, ‘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 – and it’s like, what kind of vision for the future is that? Where’s the hope? Where’s the humanity? We’re all aspiring to be monks where we could be aspiring to be lovers.’” The unbridled irritation and mansplaining continues onward to cover polyamory and then eventually identity politics, where Tony says, “‘Everybody here is white. Am I wrong? Everybody here at this ‘hui’ – he put exaggerated quotes around the word – ‘is white and middle class, just like Amber, and just like me.’”
Later in the meeting, Mira (Tony’s love interest as well as lead protagonist) tells the collective that billionaire Robert Lemoine wants to invest in them. Mira does her best to justify the exchange in a familiarly awkward spill of doubt and hope: “There are, like twenty-five red flags. I get it. But again, for what it’s worth, I’ve done a bit of reading about Autonomo online, and it honestly doesn’t seem like they⸺”
It’s Tony of course who interjects with deep disgust and distrust, saying that a billionaire who makes surveillance drones and who is building a bolthole in New Zealand is “literally the opposite of everything we stand for.” The action of Birnam Wood, the real battle, begins here. With a departure from socialist values and the attempt to wed the devil (cold-hearted, calculating, psychopath predator, Lemoine). Tony’s instincts take him down the investigative path alone, tramping through the bush, gathering information. For all his rage, and accurate suspicions, he becomes like the fairy tern, a frail creature who tries to use camouflage to hide from Lemoine’s endlessly resourced weaponry: predatory drones and hired guns.
Camouflage is a crucial motif in the novel. It of course takes its cue from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the famous play about loyalty and guilt, and innocence and ruthless ambition. In the play, the witches tell Macbeth that he can only be killed when Great Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. Macbeth, considering the movement of a forest impossible, rests easy. In the end, branches from trees in Birnam Wood are used by English soldiers to camouflage their advance, giving them the upper-hand enough to kill the King.
The inability to imagine the worst, to anticipate the twisted ends of human ambition to bend the planet to our will, is the downfall in both epic stories. It would be too much, here, to reveal who falls, and precisely why, in Catton’s tale of misapplied instinct and frail humanity, but I look forward to every reader’s breathless horror as they reach the final chapters in the riveting, racy third act.
Because Catton is an immersion artist. The deftness with which Catton’s third book – coming 10 years after The Luminaries won the Booker Prize – plunges us into the calamitous depths of our nature is freshly astonishing. When I began reading Birnam Wood I started to asterisk sentences that stood out to me as leggy, multi-parenthetic, joyrides of perfection. After the first few pages I realised that the book would soon become a constellation of blazing stars. Catton’s prose brings to mind Austen and Woolf and Mantel. She is among that echelon of literary mastery. Her sentences are the stuff of dreams: of ten-course degustations that give you the satisfaction of home cooking at its finest. In Catton’s hands the descent into character is so complete, so startlingly multi-dimensional, that the ride cannot help but be exhilarating and entirely consuming.
This, from Tony on page 157, is among one of my favourite examples:
“He imagined them spreading tarpaulins in the fields, weighting the middles and staking down the corners so the canvas wouldn’t fly away, perhaps setting out rainwater butts under drainpipes, and fashioning catchments in run-off ditches beside the road, and then piling back into Mira’s van, drenched and laughing, to drive back to the shearing shed where they’d set up their base of operations; he imagined them stringing a clothesline among the ancient wooden huts to hang their wet jackets up to dry, and he conjured in his mind a lofted space beyond the chutes where, in a happy hubbub of cross-pollinating chatter, they would all gather round to help prepare the evening meal, chopping vegetables for curry, and washing rice, and rolling out chapatis with an empty wine bottle dusted with flour, and someone would be strumming a guitar, or reading out Listener crossword clues, or narrating the gist of some recent article that had done the rounds online, and someone would be making an inventory of their progress to date, or delegating tasks for the coming day, or labelling seed sets for planting, and someone would be knitting, and someone would be poking irrigation holes in the bottoms of empty yogurt pots with a heated needle, and from time to time a snatch of melody from the guitar would cut through their conversation and they would all sing along in unison for a phrase or two – and then dissolve into embarrassed laughter, for at Birnam Wood such instances of unprompted and unaffected concord were always followed, Tony remembered, by a discomfiting, self-consciousness, for a moment everybody feeling, squeamishly, just a tiny bit like members of a cult.”
Catton has set her novel in 2017: the year that marked the beginning of Jacinda Ardern’s term as prime minister; when severe flooding affected the South Island’s West Coast; when wildfires tore through the Port Hills in Christchurch. There were a number of reported deaths that year too. Among them prominent men in business and philanthropy, honoured with groups of capital letters and titles from the Crown; and Paddles, Ardern’s cat. All of this to say that, looking back, the patchwork of events is familiar, even ordinary, despite the collection of disasters and the oddities of what we chose to mark down as important – on the Internet, in our media, sealed there for collective memory.
This, to me, is what Birnam Wood is getting at. The earth is moving around us all the time. We are approaching Dunsinane, inevitably: Forests are shifting, land is slipping, water is flooding. Predators are moving, camouflaged in plain sight. What is it that is tying so many of us in knots, rendering us incapable of doing anything about it? At the end of the novel there is a rip-roaring, last-gasp plea for attention. The question that remains is who will respond and what will be done? Is there a chance for the collective to move against the new Kings of this world? Or, as in the case of the fairy tern, does it feel uncomfortably like too little, too late?
Apparently, the Shorebirds Trust has invested $300,000 in the conservation of the fairy tern (the most recent figure I could find was from this NZ Geographic article, 2020). The amount required to become a member of the Tara Iti Golf Club is not disclosed, though membership is invitation only and is said to require six-figures. I’m dazzled by Catton’s brilliance. And terrified too. This is fiction that rubs very close to the bone.