Robert Lemoine is one of the American billionaires who are buying up New Zealand land. Tony, a former member of the collective, is against it, as he sees this as accepting “bloodmoney”. Mira, the nominal leader of their group, believes that this partnership is their only chance for survival.
There comes a time when refusing to compromise is a choice to be ineffective. How can that not be a violation of your principles? Is it worse to just throw out all the hard work we have done to be able to say we were right, or to refuse to compromise?
The argument goes on for pages, painfully familiar and utterly compelling. At what point does compromise become complicity? What use is ideological purity if it results in irrelevance? These are difficult questions. We know there are no easy answers.
Birnam Wood’s willingness to supply them repeatedly is a shock. Lemoine’s destructive nature is made clear in the novel at nearly every point. Why do people continue to extend their hands?
Birnam Wood is set in 2017. The story begins in 2017 with a landslide that kills five people, blocks the fictional Korowai Pass on the South Island of New Zealand, and cuts off a farm owned by Sir Owen Darvish. Mira has been looking at the unused farmland as a possible site for Birnam Wood’s covert plantings.
Mira meets Lemoine while inspecting the house. He is buying it in order to build a super-bunker that will be apocalypse-proof. Lemoine offers to finance the gardening collective partly because he’s intrigued by Mira but also as cover for his more sinister activities in New Zealand.
A kleptocrat who is farsighted, sells short, and embraces risk, an unapologetic self-serving individual, a misfit radical, “a builder” in a Randian sense, a genius, a dictator, or a status symbol survivalist who hedges his bets on any number of global catastrophes…
The truth is much worse. Lemoine oversees an illegal mining operation that is extensive in the Korowai National Park. His activities were responsible for the deadly landslide that set the plot in motion. He is a master at turning tragedy into an opportunity. He has purchased the Darvishes’ isolated property and built a bunker in order to hide his payload.
It’s a bold reversal, and you should be envious of the reader who clicked away after the second paragraph and before reading this spoiler. The novel is only just beginning. Birnam Wood has just started.
The Birnam Wood Collective is a brilliantly crafted creation that sits on the edge of believable and absurd. The collective’s goal is to increase awareness about the sustainability potential of unused land. It does this by planting crops in backyards and gardens, selling the products, and giving a portion of the profits back to the landowners. Birnam Wood, true to its activist roots, however, still engages in illegal plantings of private land without the consent or knowledge of owners.
The collective, founded by Mira in her idealistic days at university, is experiencing an identity crisis as the novel opens. The joint’s energy and commitment are waning, and the rise in the “innovation economy” presents the possibility of a profitable realignment.
Birnam Wood, a stumbling and tired town sustained by only good intentions and fraying relationships, is ready for Lemoine to transform it. This unlikely alliance results in a series of dramatic and increasingly violent escalations.
Catton’s scenario may seem impossible despite its ingenuity. Charlotte Grimshaw, writing in the New Zealand Listener, noted that readers “might find a little Monty Python about the idea of the guerrilla garden.” Steve Braunias found Birnam’s plot to be too convoluted for him to take it seriously.
The novel is self-aware. The New Zealanders are also struggling to believe that this is possible. They are vulnerable to Lemoine’s schemes because they cannot suspend their disbelief. The alternative is too absurd to consider. A character encounters an armed mercenary in the vicinity of Lemoine’s mine but dismisses him almost immediately: “This is New Zealand, for goodness sake.” People didn’t have guns.”
It’s almost comical how certain they are, but it is unsettling that this happened in 2017, two years before the Christchurch Mosque massacre.
Catton stated that Birnam Wood is a critique of New Zealand’s complacency in corruption and environmental issues and its tendency to coast along on an increasingly dubious reputation for being clean and green. Many of the characters in Birnam Wood refuse to believe that bad things can happen to them or their country. They feel that the events happening around them are not true to their reality.
Amitav Gosh, in his essay collection The Great Derangement from 2016, argues that the traditional approaches to plausibility within literary fiction have become out of sync with today’s global environmental crisis. In literary realism conventions, dramatic changes and sudden shifts are often implausible. Ghosh says that this attitude prevents us from recognizing the magnitude and frequency of disasters threatening our doorstep.
Birnam Wood’s narrative drama is fast-paced and may appear larger-than-life. However, it clearly outlines cause and effect, consequences, and guilt. The characters are not able to change slowly. The ground beneath their feet is shifting.