It has resonances with two recent novels that escape this fate — Nell Zink’s “Avalon,” in which characters employ criminal gardening tactics, and Allegra Hyde’s “Eleutheria,” about a utopian compound on a tropical island.
Catton’s novel takes place, as do all novels in 2023, under skies thrice poisoned — by greenhouse gasses, by crisscrossing drones and by a moon we’ve littered with golf balls. Lower to the ground, Tony will discover, is an excremental flow of chemicals, leading to a bigger discovery.
Writing a novel is not unlike tending a garden, and “Birnam Wood” becomes a kind of serpentine pastoral. Catton has a naturalist’s eye, and she traces her character’s streams of perception when their fingers are in the dirt, tinkering with the photosynthesizing world:
Even in her failures and mistakes — as when she learned that onion seeds don’t tend to keep, or that low soil temperatures result in carrots that are pale, or that fennel inhibits growth in other plants and should be propagated only on its own — she never felt chastised, for truth, in a garden, did not take the form of rectitude, and right was not the opposite of wrong. To learn even something as simple as to water the roots of a plant rather than its leaves was not to be dealt the harsh reality of a cold hard fact, but rather to be let into a secret. In a garden, expertise was personal and anecdotal — it was allegorical — it was ancient — it had been handed down; one felt that gardeners across generations were united in a kind of guild.
“Birnam Wood” is also very much of its moment: Like a refreshed “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” it’s all laptops and cycle helmets. You will learn more here about thermal imaging, drone evasion, burner applications and the raiding of other people’s browser histories, to name but four things, than you thought possible. This is also an intimate novel about female friendship that dips into the things that keep one up at night, the national character of New Zealand, hangovers and dinner parties and microdosing.
At a few moments you sense the clanking of plot in “Birnam Wood.” Some late scenarios are implausible. But the pop novel that lurks inside this wise work already has you on the hook.
Catton gives Tony, the Bernie bro, his jeremiads, some of which are woozily inspiring. He can get pretty lathered up about a lot of things, including “the utter shamelessness with which his natural inheritance, his future, had been either sold or laid to waste by his parents’ generation, trapping him in a perpetual adolescence that was further heightened by the infantilizing unreality of the internet as it encroached upon, and colonized, real life — ‘real life,’ Tony thought, with bitter air quotes.”
Reflexively, Catton takes the moral wind out of him at the same time. As the plot in “Birnam Wood” really kicks into gear, as everything begins to converge, Tony says to himself: “I am going to be so [expletive] famous.”
BIRNAM WOOD | By Eleanor Catton | 424 pp. | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $28