Eleanor Catton’s Latest Booker Prize-winning Novel is a Smoldering Thriller

Eleanor Catton’s Latest Booker Prize-winning Novel is a Smoldering Thriller

The tension-filled narrative of a claustrophobic and oppressive world finally explodes with the wrath of Shakespeare.

A Book

Eleanor Catton: Birnam Wood (Birnam Wood). Translated by Finnish Tero Valkonen. Bridge. 463 pp.

In King Drama, it’s often said that the king must die. Because the one who already has power craves more, regardless of the cost.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a prime example. Near its end, it appears as if even the forest trees turn against the ruler in Birnam.

Eleanor Catton, a New Zealander (b. 1985), draws inspiration for her third novel from Shakespeare’s classic themes of greed, cruelty and destruction.

Birnam Wood integrates human capacity for cynical self-deception and criticism of the neoliberal market economy into a bloody tragedy that intensifies towards its conclusion.

Initially, there is goodwill. A voluntary collective known as Birnam’s forest cultivates useful plants on wasteland – through illicit “guerrilla planting” – to feed the needy.

As with other noble ideas, group dynamics cause some to become more equal than others, either through more forceful argumentation or mere charisma.

With remarkable nuance, Catton dissects the characters, motives, targets and fears of her world healers. As Georg Büchner loosely quoted: man is a void, and gazing into the depths can induce vertigo.

While on the surface the story is only about tending to plots, in Catton’s psychological and sociological analysis, everything is interconnected:

“Mira was strongly drawn to growing plants, among other reasons, because it offered relief from constant self-criticism. When she made things grow, she experienced tangible forgiveness, a sense of progress and creation that was hard to find in most other aspects of life.”

A persistent sense of inadequacy and a gnawing guilt about the state of the world appear to be modern-day scourges atop Shakespearean sins.

Through various coincidences, it is discovered that a remote farm could secretly be available for the collective’s use. The spontaneous civic activity must suddenly take on a business-like nature. Yet, it must still abide by nature’s rules, as a climate disaster is imminent.

Simultaneously, on the farm, an enigmatic billionaire businessman pursues his own ambitions using his unlimited resources and ingenious covert operations. His goal is to unseat China as the leader in the field of rare earth metals.

And of course, to amass incredible wealth. Simply because it’s possible.

Can the most noble forms of philanthropy coexist with the market economy’s Messiah?

“Yes, we are like gods,” says the man in question about his ilk. “But gods can be capricious, good Mira. They don’t always act as others hope. Their ways are inscrutable.”

Self-aggrandizement leads to cultural layers even more ancient than Shakespeare, to the hubris of ancient drama.

Mira and her partners, on the other hand, experience Aristotelian Poetics’ hamartia, i.e., a fatal mistake made out of good intentions or ignorance.

Or perhaps they know, but allow the end to justify the means. The devil is known to be charming, and dealing with the devil has a long tradition.

“There’s no better thriller out there,” praises Stephen King on the book’s back cover.


However, fans of action entertainment should be aware that Catton, who only engages in the conflict in the final stages, favors lengthy, sometimes convoluted sentences, and the hefty opus has no chapter divisions whatsoever. Therefore, Birnam Wood must be consumed in chunks.

Fortunately, Tero Valkonen, who translated Catton’s previous novels The Rehearsal (2010) and The Luminaries (2014) into Finnish, delivers another quality translation. The latter work won Catton the Booker Prize, making her the youngest recipient in history.

Rather than a thriller, I would describe it as a political suspense drama set in a constricting and oppressive world that simmers for a while before finally exploding with fury. Rationality seems to belong to a disappearing world.

There’s no point expecting a purifying and uplifting catharsis after the reading experience. Because, sadly, it appears we are increasingly messing up and mishandling our shared life cycle.

Ecological catastrophe and the downfall of humanity walk hand in hand.