"Birnam Wood" by Eleanor Catton; Farrar, Straus & Giroux (432 pages, $28)
I'll start my review with the headline: Eleanor Catton's "Birnam Wood" is one of 2023's most sophisticated, stylish and searching literary works, a full-on triumph from a generational talent. Catton is best known for her Booker Prize-winning "The Luminaries," published a decade ago; at age 28 she was (and remains) the youngest laureate. Her new novel, titled after a ragtag team of ecological leftists, employs the thriller form to magnificent effect.
Set on New Zealand's rugged South Island before the pandemic, "Birnam Wood" follows Birnam Wood as they plant crops and flowers along highway medians and abandoned urban lots. Mira, their self-possessed, 20-something leader, pushes a rigid agenda, aided by her confidante Shelley, who sulks in the shadow of her friend.
After a landslide near the postcard-perfect town of Thorndike, abutting Kurowai, a national park, Mira scouts a former sheep station now owned by Owen Darvish, who has jetted off to London for a knighthood. While trespassing, Mira encounters a macho American billionaire, Robert Lemoine, who flies a private plane to and from Lord and Lady Darvish's airstrip. Mid-40s, he's deep into a secretive business deal with the couple. He visits their property frequently, for reasons that he's careful to hide.
Lemoine is the archetype of a sexy, sinister plutocrat. His swagger seduces Mira. In turn he's captivated by her assertiveness and guile: He offers her group fields and tools to farm. This strange-bedfellows partnership raises red flags for Tony, Mira's ex-boyfriend, who has just returned to New Zealand after a stint abroad. An aspiring journalist, Tony also stakes out the Darvish acreage, even slipping into Kurowai park, where he discovers a phalanx of drones and a creepy testing site. Something's amiss in the bush.
Till Birnam wood remove to Dunsinane / I cannot taint with fear. The author casts Lemoine as the egomaniacal, self-deluded Thane of Cawdor and Mira as Lady Macbeth, she of questionable ethics and Out-damned-spot fame.
Catton writes languid sentences that fold back on themselves amid a lift of conjunctions and prepositional phrases, much like Lemoine's cockpit skills: "Nothing in the world compared to the liquid thrill of piloting a craft through three axes of movement, feeling the vertical, the lateral and the longitudinal as divergent possibilities curving away from him through air that was tactile and elastic and textured with a warp and a woof."
Climate crisis, late-stage capitalism, and male predation: "Birnam Wood" traverses narrative territory similar to Stephen Markley's "The Deluge" and Rebecca Makkai's "I Have Some Questions for You."
But in its scope and execution it moves beyond these novels just as smoothly as Lemoine's plane glides upward. Catton deftly fleshes out her characters' back stories; as a child Lemoine taught himself chess, archvillain as embryo: "His goal had been to become so ambidextrous when it came to action and reaction, move and countermove, that he would reach the point where half the games he played were won by white, and half by black: only then, he'd told himself, could he really call himself a master." He can't control each piece on the board, though, and the author keeps us guessing until the startling crescendo.
I'll end my review with the headline: Eleanor Catton's "Birnam Wood" is one of this year's most sophisticated, stylish, and searching works, a full-on triumph from a once-in-a-generation talent.