Reviews of Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton

Birnam Wood

A Novel

by Eleanor Catton

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton X
Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton
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  • Published:
    Mar 2023, 432 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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About this Book

Book Summary

The Booker Prize–winning author of The Luminaries brings us Birnam Wood, a gripping thriller of high drama and kaleidoscopic insight into what drives us to survive.

Birnam Wood is on the move ...

Five years ago, Mira Bunting founded a guerrilla gardening group: Birnam Wood. An undeclared, unregulated, sometimes-criminal, sometimes-philanthropic gathering of friends, this activist collective plants crops wherever no one will notice: on the sides of roads, in forgotten parks and neglected backyards. For years, the group has struggled to break even. Then Mira stumbles on an answer, a way to finally set the group up for the long term: a landslide has closed the Korowai Pass, cutting off the town of Thorndike. Natural disaster has created an opportunity, a sizable farm seemingly abandoned.

But Mira is not the only one interested in Thorndike. Robert Lemoine, an enigmatic American billionaire, has snatched it up to build his end-times bunker—or so he tells Mira when he catches her on the property. Intrigued by Mira, Birnam Wood, and their entrepreneurial spirit, he suggests they work this land. But can they trust him? And, as their ideals and ideologies are tested, can they trust each other?

A gripping psychological thriller from the Booker Prize–winning author of The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton's Birnam Wood is Shakespearean in its drama, Austenian in its wit, and, like both influences, fascinated by what makes us who we are. A brilliantly constructed study of intentions, actions, and consequences, it is a mesmerizing, unflinching consideration of the human impulse to ensure our own survival.

Birnham Wood

Mira's first thought, on coming home to the empty flat, had been that Shelley had finally done it: packed up all her things and left, without warning, and without a note. After calling Shelley's name and hearing no reply, she had stood in the open doorway for several seconds, reconciling herself to the new though long-expected reality of Shelley being gone – before her vision clarified and she saw that Shelley's bike was still in the laundry, and her shoes were still piled beneath the radiator, and her beloved bomber jacket was still hanging on its coat hook in the hall. Feeling foolish, Mira hastily revised her thought to wonder, instead, if some sudden emergency had taken Shelley from the house ... But if that were the case, then wouldn't she have called – or texted, at the very least?

She remembered suddenly the location tracker app that they had both installed some months ago, and never used. She got out her phone to check if the connection was ...

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Mira and Lemoine are a delightfully mismatched pair, and readers will relish seeing the ways in which they dance around one another while also using one another. Mira, although ostensibly the selfless do-gooder, is in many ways just as conniving and calculating as Lemoine, who comes off, as the story progresses, as ethically bankrupt but at least honest about it. Theirs is just one of the richly complicated relationships at play as Catton's drama unfolds—there's Mira's old flame Tony, newly returned from several years teaching abroad and eager both to impress her with his ideological purity and, in his new role as investigative blogger, to get to the bottom of the highly secretive Darvish/Lemoine land deal. And there's the push and pull of Mira's long-time collaboration with her friend, roommate and business partner Shelley, who longs to escape from Mira's thrall but keeps getting pulled back in—perhaps with disastrous results...continued

Full Review Members Only (661 words)

(Reviewed by Norah Piehl).

Media Reviews

The New York Times
Eleanor Catton's third novel, Birnam Wood, is a big book, a sophisticated page-turner, that does something improbable: It filters anarchist, monkey-wrenching environmental politics, a generational (anti-baby boomer) cri de coeur and a downhill-racing plot through a Stoppardian sense of humor. ... The whole thing crackles, like hair drawn through a pocket comb.

The Washington Post
With terrifying intensity, Catton propels these characters to a finale that prefigures the very apocalypse they're all trying to forestall. It's a wry indictment of all the poor players who strut and fret their hours upon this stage and then are heard no more.

Booklist (starred review)
Sharp, sizzling ... Birnam Wood is tightly wound and psychologically thrilling, and Catton's fans and readers new to her powers will savor it to the end.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
As saturated with moral scrutiny and propulsive plotting as 19th-century greats; it's a twisty thriller via Charles Dickens, only with drones ... Readers will hold their breath until the last page ... This blistering look at the horrors of late capitalism manages to also be a wildly fun read.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
A tragic eco-thriller of betrayed ideals and compromised loyalties ... [Catton] pulls a taut, suspenseful story from the tangle of vivid characters. Thanks to a convincing backdrop of ecological peril, Catton's human drama is made even more acute.

Author Blurb Carys Davies, author of The Mission House
A filmic and page-turning thriller―Eleanor Catton weaves a complex and absorbing web of human relationships in which the balance of power is constantly and unpredictably shifting. Hubris and ambition, vanity and greed, principle and expediency, courage and hope―all are here, but not necessarily where you expect to find them.

Author Blurb Francis Spufford, author of Light Perpetual
What I admired most in Birnam Wood was the way that the rapid violence of the climax rises, all of it, out of the deep, patient, infinitely nuanced character work that comes before. If George Eliot had written a thriller, it might have been a bit like this.

Author Blurb Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist, on Instagram
Phenomenal and utterly gripping, Birnam Wood has the sense of a literary writer setting herself free and having a bit of fun. It's fantastic. I loved it.

Author Blurb Rivka Galchen, author of Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch
Mysterious and marvelously unpredictable, Birnam Wood had me reading the way I used to as a kid―curiously, desperately and as if it was the whole world. Catton connects to the natural and unnatural ways in which we try to control our environments, our impulses and one another. A spectacular novel, conjured by a virtuoso.

Author Blurb Stephen King
Birnam Wood is terrific. As a multilayered, character-driven thriller, it's as good as it gets. Ruth Rendell would have loved it. A beautifully textured work―what a treat.

Reader Reviews


pretty good book if i say so
It is the average book I don't like many books but this one is good so I bet you would like it I rated it a 4.

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Beyond the Book

The Real Birnam Wood

The Birnam Oak shown from a distance, lower branches propped on crutches Eleanor Catton's novel Birnam Wood and the guerrilla gardening group at its center draw their name from lines in Shakespeare's Macbeth, serving as the novel's epigraph, in which one of the witches prophesies:

Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.

Macbeth, in the height of hubris, scoffs—how could a forest "come against" anyone? He finds out of course, when his enemy Malcolm orders his army to cut branches off the trees in Birnam Wood to tie to their bodies, disguising themselves before attacking and defeating Macbeth at Dunsinane.

Birnam Wood is—or was—a real place in Scotland, located outside the village of Dunkeld in Perthshire. According...

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