Birnham Wood -Eleanor Catton (Granta 2023)

It’s been 10 years since Eleanor Catton’s last novel, the doorstep sized “The Luminaries”, scooped the Booker Prize breaking both longest novel and youngest winning author records.  This book marks the long-awaited return for this New Zealand author and has a very different feel from her last highly-celebrated nineteenth century set work.

We are in modern New Zealand.  Birnham Wood is the name of a group of radical horticulturalists, a no profit organisation who carry out guerrilla gardening, planting crops in areas which do not belong to them.  An area called Korawai (fictional) cordoned off due to a landslip offers a great potential opportunity.  The land belongs to the newly knighted pest control expect Owen Darvish, awarded for services to conservation but he is in the middle of secret dealings with an American billionaire.  The Birnham Wood group get caught in the middle in what can loosely be described as an eco-thriller.

One thing I remembered about Eleanor Catton’s work is that she likes long sentences which slowed me down last time round but here it all becomes more and more readable as the plot advances.  I felt with “The Luminaries” that I was missing out on something allegorical I couldn’t  quite pick up on- here things seem more straightforward- it’s a state of the nation environmental novel with leanings towards thriller genre writing where the lines between the goodies and baddies are blurred and moral boundaries are crossed.

Despite the involving plot the main strength for me is (as in her last book) the relationship between characters, particularly Mira and Shelley, the two leading lights of Birnham Wood- Mira, inspirational, starting off enthralled by the prospect of new action for the group, Shelley, more practical, feeling disillusionment creeping in.  There’s great tension between these two friends which is convincing.  I’m not sure how I felt about the ending which wasn’t what I was expecting.  This is another strong title from Eleanor Catton, with less lofty ambitions than “The Luminaries”.  Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 10 years to read more from her.

Birnham Wood will be published by Granta in the UK on 2nd March.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton (2013)


Now this really is a big book, in every way. Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2013 and holds the title of the longest book to win that award. It really does take some reading, although, the feeling I got on completing the book was one of satisfaction. Reading this was a rewarding experience. Set in 1866 in New Zealand’s gold mining district where a group of twelve men meet to put together their stories of a rogue sea captain, a prostitute and the death of a hermit, later found to be rich. It is a densely plotted, shifting book with a swirling pattern of events and narratives, likened probably (although I admit to being a little vague on this aspect)to the night sky and astrological patterns. That aspect of the novel, the occasional chart and astrological chapter headings didn’t really grip me and I didn’t feel that it added to the experience of the novel. As a literary device it felt a little too artificial. What did grip me, however, were the memorable characters and the authentic feel of the novel. It did feel very much like a lost piece of mid-Victoriana. Perhaps most impressive was the author’s skill in leading us through her lengthy involved work with its twists and turns without getting the reader lost. I recently read a shorter, Man Booker 2014 shortlisted novel which would have benefited from Catton’s skill with this. It is ambitious, brave, literary and an unsurprising winner. However, I still harbour this lingering feeling that I had missed out on something (it’s the astrology theme again), that there was something allegorical I hadn’t been able to decode. I’ll keep it on the shelves for a re-read, but because of its length it won’t be for a while!  fourstars

I’ve just had a look at the previous winners of the Booker Prize (first awarded 1969) and have discovered I have read just twelve of them, which isn’t a particularly impressive total. I’ve read six of them this century, which is a little better but most of the earlier books have passed me by.

My top three Booker Prize winners

  1. Sacred Hunger – Barry Unsworth (1992)
  2. Line Of Beauty – Alan Hollinghurst (2004)
  3. The Life Of Pi – Yann Martell (2002)

with honourable mentions to Peter Carey, Margaret Attwood and Iris Murdoch.