Booker winner gives us a sociopathic Bond villain in the bush

Booker winner gives us a sociopathic Bond villain in the bush

In the 10 years since she won the Booker Prize for her second novel, The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton has detoured into screenwriting, adapting her bestseller into a television series and working on a film version of Jane Austen’s Emma. The shift from page to screen would seem to be a natural enough progression. As one reviewer noted at the time, The Luminaries owed as much to the aesthetics of television dramas as it did to the discursive energies of the sprawling 19th-century novel.

An intriguing synthesis of the literary and the televisual is no less a feature of Birnam Wood, Catton’s long-awaited follow-up to The Luminaries. Unlike its predecessor, Birnam Wood is not a historical novel. It does, however, recommend itself as a screen-ready fiction, grounded in the narrative conventions of the conspiracy thriller, but graced with an old-fashioned novelistic perspicacity.

Eleanor Catton is the kind of writer who knows her characters better than they know themselves.Credit:Murdo MacLeod

The choice of genre is an indication of the novel’s wider concerns. Birnam Wood is very much about the current environmental crisis. It has an obvious real-world inspiration in Peter Thiel, the American tech billionaire, who has acquired New Zealand citizenship and purchased a substantial property there. The news that Thiel plans to build an elaborate compound has prompted speculation that he is constructing a doomsday bunker where he can ride out the looming global catastrophe.

Birnam Wood wraps this concept in layers of intrigue, while evoking the fundamental political conflict of our time. It brings rapacious techno-capitalism, in the form of a suave American billionaire named Robert Lemoine, face to face with grassroots environmentalism, represented by a rag-tag Kiwi gardening collective. Led by the neo-hippie visionary Mira, with the assistance of her practical-minded deputy Shelley, Birnam Wood is a financially precarious and legally dubious organisation that cultivates disused scraps of land.


The wheels of the plot begin to turn when the collective takes over an isolated farm, seemingly abandoned after a landslide, only for Mira to encounter Lemoine, who informs her that he is buying the property. Rather than evict them, he proposes a deal. Not only can they stay, but he will also fund them. He can present himself as an environmentally responsible philanthropist while he builds his bunker; they can establish themselves as a legitimate not-for-profit.

Much of the first half of the novel is concerned with the political arguments and personal tensions the proposal generates within the already fractious collective. These are heightened by the return of Tony, an aspiring journalist and former member of Birnam Wood, who once had an awkward drunken fling with Mira. An unreconstructed left-wing idealist, Tony rails — lucidly but tactlessly — against the idea of them selling out, but to no avail.

The novel moves between the perspectives of Mira, Shelley and Tony with great technical skill. Catton is the kind of writer who knows her characters better than they know themselves. She interleaves the action with long and often brilliant passages in which she dissects their insecurities, vanities, guilts and failings. She is interested in showing us how they negotiate the constantly shifting ground of their interpersonal relationships, how their beliefs are compromised and ironised by circumstances.

This becomes less of a focus as the plot gathers pace. As his nefarious intentions are gradually exposed, Lemoine becomes the novel’s defining conundrum, though Catton tries not to portray him as a one-dimensional villain. The novel inhabits his perspective too. It dissects his superficial charm, his calculating intelligence, his steely resolve. It registers his awareness of how he is perceived and his willingness to play up to those perceptions in order to manipulate people.

But in doing so, Birnam Wood arrives at a curious mimetic impasse. When you have a character who has boundless resources at his disposal, who controls a fleet of surveillance drones, who can intercept and manipulate electronic messages, who has a private security force on standby to defend his elaborate plan to enrich himself even further, what you have is a Bond villain.

Lemoine exists beyond the circumstantial compromises that define the other characters and make them seem human. The subtle ironies that attend their existence do not really apply to him. His problems are merely strategic. As a result, there is a dramatic hollowness at his core. He is sociopathic by virtue of his position.

In the end, it’s a bit too obvious. Can you ever reach an entente with the people who would destroy the planet to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else? Of course you can’t.

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton is published by Granta, $32.99.

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