I read good things about Birnam Wood, and so I put it on my library queue – and realized I had not read her earlier, Booker-winning novel, The Luminaries. I put both on my queue, and both arrived near-ish to each other. Both were ALSO nearly (and now just slightly) about to be overdue at the same time, so I read them back-to-back, in order to return them without too much strain on the library borrowing system. Despite the fact that these are very different books, I decided to put them together into one post because I’m very behind on reviewing books right now and combining these books into one post eased my anxiety about that.
The Luminaries is set in the 1860s in Hokitika, a coastal New Zealand town that became popular for its goldmines. The story begins when a young man walks into a hotel room filled with twelve strangers. The man, Walter Moody, senses something is afoot – and eventually he extracts the story from the group, and embroils himself in the mystery the town is attempting to solve. Weeks previous, a man who lived in the outskirts of town, known mostly for being a drunk, has been found dead – but what appears at first to be a simple overdose sort of situation reveals itself to be something deeper. That same night, a local prostitute with a taste for opium is found near dead in the middle of the street. When she comes to in the local jail (they debate trying her for attempting to take her own life) she insists she was not suicidal – but she is also aware of some mysterious sources of gold. From there, the tale spins on, revealing a larger and larger cast of characters involved. Many of these characters receive their own perspective in alternating chapters. This is the sort of novel where each person has a piece of the puzzle, and as a reader we are able to see more of the interlocking pieces. It’s quite complicated, and more than once I was tempted to get out a piece of paper and draw a map of some sort to keep the connections clear in my mind.
This is a novel where many things probably SHOULDN’T have worked for me, but they really did. I would not have guessed that I’d enjoy a novel about 1860s gold miners in New Zealand. I loved it and felt hooked from the first few pages. It’s LONG, over 800 pages, but the pacing was such that it never felt like it was dragging. I’ve read something about how the author devised the chapters to follow the cycle of the moon, and there are many astrological connections, but I’ll confess I was not interested in digging into that much further and that did not impact my enjoyment of the novel at all. The first chapter is the longest, and each are shorter by about half, so that the last of the 12 sections is only a few pages long. While a few of the characters feel like stock 1860s males, for the most part they are all inventive and complicated. Catton does a great job balancing introspective explanations of a character’s inner thoughts and providing enough plot to propel the story. It’s more literary fiction than crime story, but there’s definitely a reason to keep turning the pages.
I think I expected that I would prefer this book, and it turns out that I do – but only slightly. It’s a tight race. Similarly to The Luminaries, this book was so much faster paced than you might expect from a book that relies so much on character development. I’ve discovered Storygraph this year (I’m late to that party, I know, but have you used Storygraph yet? I don’t have the energy to review books twice so I only use it to log my reading, but the data!). And it didn’t surprise me to see that I mostly enjoy literary fiction, medium paced, and books that are reflective and emotional. This one fits that bill in a lot of ways – but it’s also sharp social commentary, and a bit of a crime thriller, and sort of a twenty-somethings relationship drama.
Like The Luminaries it begins slowly and then moves ever more repulsively towards the conclusion. It’s also set in New Zealand, but now we’re in contemporary times. Mira Bunting runs a collective called Birnam Wood, which is sort of a rogue group of anti-capitalist gardeners who try to grow food in random patches of earth, often mooching supplies from nearby wealthy communities. Birnam Wood functions in part because of the work of Shelly, a “friend” of Mira’s who is beginning to doubt her place in the collective. Tony helped to found the group ideologically but has been abroad for a while – his recent return is complicated by his as-yet-unfulfilled chemistry with Mira.
A landslide isolates the town of Thorndike, which is also the setting of a large farm once owned by the family of Jill Darvish. Jill’s husband Owen has recently been made a knight, their upward trajectory enhanced by his recent semi-conservation attempts. Robert Lemoine, a billionaire American, has plans of his own related to land owned by Jill and Owen. When Mira crosses paths with Robert, Birnam Wood becomes enmeshed with the land in Thorndike. As with all the best novels, unforeseen consequences ensue.
The novel has three sections. The first has some longer philosophical arguments among characters, but the second advances the plot, leading to a third movement that feels almost dizzying. We move fluidly between character perspectives, which enriches the novel tremendously. It was difficult to put down. It strikes a progressive tone while rebuking the progressives within the novel most of all. It was unexpected, philosophical and explosive all at once. Well worth the price of admission.