Birnam Wood is the new novel by the New Zealand writer, Eleanor Catton, a literary author who crosses into mystery and suspense. Her previous novel, The Luminaries, was a brick of words weighing in at 800 pages that enthralled me from beginning to end when I read it ten years ago. That was a historical novel, set in 1865 New Zealand, while Birnan Wood is thoroughly contemporary. Characters wrestle with climate change from both agrarian and commercial perspectives, and human greed, sacrifice, and curiosity generates action. I'm being vague here because part of the great pleasure of reading this novel is getting swept into the story as it unfolds, so I won't even give an overview. Instead, I'd like to discuss how Catton creates multi-faceted characters that are able to deliver whopping surprises. As in any literary novel, these characters drive the plot, so they must be developed with enough complexities to thwart reader expectation and motor us through the four hundred pages of this more average-sized book.
There are four major characters. Their personalities are formed from layers of qualities described in a direct, up-front manner so that, for each character, we know the sources of the tension they hold internally, giving us insight into the character's strengths and vulnerabilities from the beginning. We know their weak spots; we are aware of their flaws, and so, as they step into increasingly complex character-generated circumstances, we worry.
Mira and Shelley are the prime movers behind a gardening collective called Birnam Wood that's fervently anti-capitalist and anti-corporate. They create gardens in unused and unclaimed spaces, turning abandoned areas into productive, food-growing plots of land. They are a rogue organization, dedicated to the vision of a greener, more equitable economy for New Zealand.
Mira is the visionary who conceived of Birnam Wood and Shelley, her good friend and roommate, attends to its daily functioning as bookkeeper and problem solver. Early in the novel when Mira senses that Shelley is about to defect from both the enterprise and their friendship, the reader knows that she has correctly intuited Shelley's intentions.
Mira knows she's taken Shelley for granted and wishes she had been more involved in their relationship. The reason she wasn't is complicated. Mira has always sought out "the company of men. Her favoured[sic] style of conversation was impassioned argument that bordered on seduction, and although it was distasteful, not to mention tactically unwise, to admit that one enjoyed flirtation, she never felt freer, or funnier, or more imaginatively potent than when she was the only woman in the room" (51). As she braces for Shelley's defection, "[s]he wished more than anything that she could reverse her course, convey more gratitude and sympathy, show more interest in Shelley's inner life, confess, as she could still barely confess to herself, that the air of fearless self-assurance she projected was merely an imposture, a front devised to ward off intimacy and to banish her immense uncertainty and moral guilt. She wished she could tell her friend the honest truth,…that in her own monumental stupidity and self-absorption, she had only just figured out that" (51-52) she needed her and she loved her.
To introduce a woman who is not only smart and motivated, and then state directly, that she has a seductive, flirtatious nature, is to plant a seed of chaos. Yet, Catton doesn't stop there. It would be a simplification to give the reader only these two qualities: her seductive nature and political dedication. So, she adds an interesting complexity. As the reader witnesses Mira's self-critique, learning the many ways she regrets her treatment of Shelley, the enterprise of Birnam Wood is subsumed until these lines at the bottom of page 52: "One of the reasons that horticulture held such strong appeal for Mira was that it offered a respite from the habit of relentless interior critique. When she made things grow, she experienced a kind of manifest forgiveness, an abiding moving-on and making-new that she found impossible in almost every other sphere of life."
This took my breath away. It showed me a more gentle and kinder aspect of this ferociously principled woman. It restored my respect for her even though there was a time in my life when I too could have offered the same self-critique. (Many young women, I think, could admit the same weakness.) For the novel, it ratchets up the tension. Yes, Mira is vulnerable to men, but she's not going to be an easy mark. Her dedication to Birnam Wood grows from her own true and necessary kinship with the earth. That makes her powerful despite her weakness, but it also provides an insight into the workings of Birnam Wood. Though it's a collective, it is Mira's energy that moves it forward. Should Mira get distracted, it wouldn't take much to tip it into chaos.
The American billionaire, Robert Lemoine, meets Mira and finds her so impressive he offers financial support to the collective. The other characters try to uncover his true intentions but he's a chameleon. Sly and cunning, he takes on different personas to hide his true activities. The other quality that makes it hard to pin him down is his hobby. He is a pilot. And because he owns a plane and has unlimited funds, he can disappear and reappear at will, travelling great distances easily. In addition, he can spy on others from the cockpit, sweeping over the landscape, noticing anything suspicious. He is passionate about flying in the same way Mira is passionate about gardening. "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 woof. When in flight…he began to hear his own breath through his headset, and to feel his heartbeat magnify within his chest; he achieved, at altitude, a profound sense of his own proportion, of the sheer scale of everything he could be, everything he had been, everything he was…" (77-78). For him, flying creates a heightened sense of his own potential. Just as Mira needs to have her hands in the earth, Lemoine needs to rise above the ground. This would make them appear to be allies. But then, here too, Catton is not satisfied with a simplified rendering of her character's motivations.
Almost two hundred pages later, the reader learns why Lemoine became a pilot when he tells Mira that flying reduces everything below to a diorama. "Because everything's so small, you see. It's manageable. You hold the figures in your hand. You can see the whole scene" (268). Clearly, it's the confession of a man who needs to control others. Forty pages earlier the reader learned about an incident from Lemoine's childhood that provides the motivation for everything he has achieved since then: his business, his vision for the future, his plan for expanding his operations. That is the seed of disorder. It's the key to who Lemoine really is, and it tells us why he needs to make a landscape manageable, why he needs to create a diorama. It's the final layer to a multi-layered antagonist, a man who needs to hide a deeply illegal activity. That activity forms the beating heart of the novel.