Books

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton review: 'Nothing like you'll expect'

Eleanor Catton's long-awaited follow-up to The Luminaries is brilliantly written, but not nearly scathing enough

Birnam Wood cover

There have been numerous points over the past 10 years where I have found myself gazing longingly out my window wondering when Eleanor Catton will return with a new novel. Her last book, 2013’s The Luminaries, came out of nowhere and steamrolled everyone. Published when Catton was just 28, this 800-page Victorian pastiche was a technical masterpiece and, for my money, the best Booker winner of the 2010s (sorry Dame Hilary). I suppose I cannot blame Catton for disappearing for so long; if I wrote a novel as vast and complex as The Luminaries is, I too would demand to take a decade off. But thankfully she has returned. And her new novel Birnam Wood is nothing like you’ll expect it to be. 

Birnam Wood are a group of eco-activists who liken themselves to the famed moving forest from Macbeth. After a landslide makes a large plot of the New Zealand countryside inaccessible, the group see it as the perfect location for their latest guerrilla campaign. The problem is an American billionaire called Robert Lemoine is also interested in the plot of land as a haven he can escape to when the world ends. The novel that follows is an uber contemporary take on grassroots vs. corporation, nature vs. industry and, ultimately, rich vs. poor. 

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The question everyone has on their lips is: has this novel been worth the 10-year wait? And honestly, no it hasn’t. But I don’t say that to diminish it. My opinion on this book changes like the wind. It is brilliantly written, something which is hard to come by in novels these days, and it will keep you enticed up until its final page, but when that final page comes you may be asking yourself what exactly the point of all of it was? Catton clearly had something to say about the ways in which New Zealand is being reaped and destroyed, not just by climate change but by men with deep pockets, and I feel she could’ve been so much more scathing about that. This novel is palatable when it should be a call to arms. 

Birnam Wood book cover

Barry Pierce is a journalist and cultural commentator  

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton is out now (Granta, £20). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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