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.