Birnam Wood

by Eleanor Catton

Published 2023 432 pages

Everything a good thriller should be: a plot slowly unravelled, a series of unfortunate and increasingly unlikely coincidences, a multitude of viewpoints begetting terrific dramatic irony, a cast of believably flawed characters scuttling about in their own heads, a powerful ramping-up of events leading to a chaotic climax in the final pages.

Birnam Wood is nominally a story about the eponymous anarcho-environmentalist group and their struggle to make a significant difference in the world—or at least in New Zealand, where the book takes place. This opportunity comes in the form of American tech entrepreneur Robert Lemoine, a sort of pastiche of Peter Thiel and Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who offers to put up tremendous capital as a front for some decidedly anti-environmental undertaking he's got cooking on protected land.

The individual episodes of the novel are concerned with the internecine squabbles on the left: anticapitalist sentiment, intersectionality, struggles with privilege and entitlement. Members of Birnam Wood second-guess themselves and others, argue for the purity or practicability of ideology. But the plot itself is driven pretty much solely by Lemoine's desire to mess with everyone around him for no greater purpose than to see what happens, or else by fiendish coincidence.

The ending doesn't offer an eventual common ground between Lemoine and Birnam Wood, nor a victory for the environmentalists over the capitals, for the plucky Kiwis over the American interloper. Instead, it underlines the fundamental irreconcilability of capital and environmental stewardship. Environmentally-conscious businesses, it claims, will always be businesses first and environmentally-conscious second. It's a grim perspective but it's artfully—and compellingly!—done.


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