Skip to main content

Eco-idealism and staggering wealth meet in 'Birnam Wood'

Birnam Wood is a whooshingly enjoyable new novel by Eleanor Catton, a New Zealander whose previous book, The Luminaries, made her, at 28, still the youngest person ever to win the Booker Prize.



Other segments from the episode on March 14, 2023

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 14, 2023: Interview with Clancy Brown; Review of Birnam Wood; Review of Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch.



This is FRESH AIR. "Birnam Wood" is the first novel by Eleanor Catton since she won the Booker Prize in 2013 for "The Luminaries." The new book tells the story of a New Zealand environmental collective that finds an unlikely backer in an American billionaire. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says the book is like a Victorian novel but with a pulp fiction kick.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Ever since Ursula K. Le Guin and Edward Abbey lit the fuse back in the 1970s, there's been an ever-growing explosion of political eco-fiction. From Octavia Butler and Richard Powers to Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood, novelists have gotten more and more fascinated with those who fight to save the environment.

One such group occupies the center of "Birnam Wood," the whooshingly enjoyable new novel by Eleanor Catton, a New Zealander whose previous book, "The Luminaries," made her, at 28, still the youngest person ever to win the Booker Prize. Where that 2013 novel was a wild-and-woolly beast, "Birnam Wood" - its title comes from "Macbeth" - is shapelier and more conventional. Filled with utopian hopes, personal betrayals, accidental deaths and profoundly unaccidental murders, this New Zealand-set book is a witty literary thriller about the collision between eco-idealism and staggering wealth.

The story begins by introducing three 20-something members of Birnam Wood, a guerrilla collective that seeks to fight capitalism and ecological devastation by, legally or not, growing things on unplanted land, public and private. There's Mira, the group's willful and charismatic founder. There's her burnt-out sidekick, Shelley, who does the grunt work and secretly wants to quit the group. And then there's Tony, the most radical thinker of the bunch who's returned to the group after several years abroad. He has romantic hopes for himself and Mira, hopes that Shelley quietly hopes to sink.

Mira hears about an unoccupied farm owned by Sir Owen Darvish and his wife, Jill, who embody the solidity and complacency of well-off Kiwis. Mira thinks it perfect for a Birnam Wood project. But when she drives there from Christchurch, she discovers that it's been bought by Robert Lemoine, an elusive, billionaire American drone manufacturer who says he plans to build a survivalist bunker. Attracted to Mira, Lemoine offers to help finance Birnam Wood. And because her group badly needs money, she's interested. But will a rich benefactor's money help the group spread its message or corrupt it?

While Catton has sympathy for the grand idealism of the Birnam Wood collective, she also sees its fault lines. Indeed, the book's at its best taking us inside the characters' heads to lay bare the illusions, desires and petty motivations that often work against their dreams. For instance, Mira emerges as something of a modern-day version of Jane Austen's Emma. Catton actually scripted a 2020 film adaptation of that novel. Mira's sense of political righteousness blinds her to her own motivations. The disaffected Shelley accuses her of, quote, "rebelling for the sake of it, acting as though the rules that bound the little people were just too tiresome and ordinary to apply to her."

Working in the tradition of the 19th century novel - one hears echoes of George Eliot as well as Austen - Catton likes to confront her characters with choices and then lay bare the consequences, often unintended, of what they've chosen. There's a great, lacerating scene in which Tony, a world-class mansplainer, falls out of favor with the group by attacking identity politics and intersectionality. Because of this split, he will wind up spying on Lemoine - a move that sends the plot caroming in a wild new direction.

You see, while our heroes in the collective are muddling their way through ordinary human issues, they're faced with a villain from a 21st century thriller. Lemoine isn't merely an amoral billionaire with all the compassion of one of his drones. He's a high-tech bad guy, complete with NSA-level spyware and mercenaries to do his bidding. Too bad to be true, he's so skillful at wielding his malignancy that, in spite of herself, Catton seems to hold him in a kind of awe.

Normally, it would be an artistic flaw that realistic characters like Mira, Shelley, Tony and the Darvishes must confront such a comic-book baddie, and I guess it is here. What starts off looking like a novel about character winds up in a climax out of a genre novel. Yet the story plays like gangbusters. I devoured all 400-plus pages in two days.

And in showing the collective's encounter with Lemoine, Catton taps into a feeling very much of our moment. We live at a time when many environmentalists feel helpless next to mega-rich forces who seem able to despoil the planet as they wish and to avoid any governmental attempts to check them. In "Birnam Wood," we see the consequences of this gap in power. And the results are not pretty.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed "Birnam Wood" by Eleanor Catton. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about working as a doctor in the largest safety net hospital in Houston, one of America's most diverse cities, in the state that has the nation's largest uninsured population. Safety net hospitals treat the uninsured who aren't admitted to other hospitals. We'll talk with Dr. Ricardo Nuila, author of the new book "The People's Hospital: Hope And Peril In American Medicine." I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.


You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue