Eleanor Catton, 2023
This is the sort of novel that one finishes and then immediately Googles to see what everyone else thought about the shocking ending. Imagine my disappointment to find that the vast majority of reviews in the major newspapers were nothing more than overly detailed summaries of the book’s premise, with a couple of vague sentences tacked onto the end regarding their opinion.
If you haven’t read this book, you will be less interested in a premise summary and more interested in a persuasive list of reasons why you should read it – which I have provided below.
And if you have read this book, all you will care about is hearing the thoughts of someone – anyone – else who has survived the last two pages. Again, you can find this below – you’ll just have to scroll slightly further down.
Part 1: Why should I read this book? (Spoiler-free)
Goodreads reviewer Jessica Woodbury sums it up well:
“This is a book where you have no idea at the beginning where it will be at the end. It is a real ride. I love a real ride. Especially one that is this confident.”
This is a tightly plotted thriller that starts slow and concludes at such a breakneck speed you’ll barely have time to breathe. I love a book with an exquisite plot. I love a book I can’t put down. It sounds so simple, but a truly gripping book is a rare and precious find. And as I will later show when analysing the ending, Catton mixes the thriller genre with the classical tragic form to great effect.
I also love a book whose characters are neither good nor bad. I have never understood people who say they like or dislike a book based on whether they like or dislike or ‘relate to’ the characters. To me there is nothing more irrelevant.
In Birnam Wood we meet activists and wannabe journalists and businessmen and billionaires and wives and friends and sisters. It’s an incredible feat that Catton manages to present these characters and their stories to us from a viewpoint that is at once intimate, allowing us privileged access into their psyches, and disinterested, impersonal and totally partisan, dancing lightly above anything so distasteful as an authorial opinion. We soar above the story; we are like an invisible ghost that walks among its characters, close enough to touch. We see them and understand them but we do not judge them. Instead, we know them. It was rather like reading the A Song of Ice and Fire series; every time the viewpoint shifted in proximity to a different character, I started rooting for them to win – even when they were plotting to kill each other.
Speaking about her inspirations, Catton cited Jane Austen as ‘the forebear’ of this book. “Her books are so exquisitely patterned; the ironies are so beautiful and complete, and yet you have such a sense that these characters are real, and that you know them and that you love them or you hate them and you’re so pleased when they get together or when they don’t get together.” Real people, moving freely inside an ‘exquisitely patterned’ plot, is what Catton does so well in both her earlier, Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, and perhaps even better here.
Birnam Wood has a lot to say about politics and activism and capitalism and the climate crisis and surveillance and corruption – or rather, its characters do. The narrative voice remains coolly detached, at times gently poking fun or illuminating a key detail.
We are firmly planted in the world of an activist collective offered the tantalising opportunity to betray its anti-capitalist ethos in exchange for a billionaire’s funding – but we are not shoehorned into viewing this interesting scenario from one particular opinion or perspective.
Catton does a fantastic job of telling a story that features so many important current issues without coming across as preachy, idealistic or pessimistic. Everything is presented objectively and with a wry smile.
Dwight Garner in The New York Times puts it well:
Birnam Wood is an ardent ecological novel, but it’s not a softheaded one. That’s another reason it’s a rarity. I sometimes feel that if I must read even one more wet novel that argues courageously, in the teeth of its audience’s predilections, in favor of trees and moss and sunshine, I will pluck out my eyes.
(This made me think guiltily of Richard Powers’ The Overstory, sat forlornly on my did-not-finish pile).
- The characters are three-dimensional.
- The plot is intricate and gripping.
- The story centres lots of important themes but it is told from a light-touch yet all-knowing perspective that never lands clumsily on one side or another.
- Though similar to ambition and intricacy to The Luminaries, this is a big shift in genre, setting and tone from Catton’s 2013 Booker winner. It’s taken her ten years to produce this, her third novel. I simply love when authors take decades to write books (see also Susanna Clarke’s three books, published in 2004, 2006 and 2020, or Donna Tartt’s 1992, 2002 and 2013). I love it even more when novelists refuse to be pigeon-holed, pivoting gloriously into new genres. If I believe one thing, it’s that good books come in all shapes and sizes. Catton’s work thus far has proved this.
- It has a phenomenal ending. An extremely good ending is an extremely rare thing, and as such it is worth its weight in gold.
I will finish this section with a few of my favourite passages from B. D. McClay’s review in The New Yorker, which sum up well what sets Birnam Wood apart.
Contemporary literary fiction largely concerns itself with other things: moods, problems, situations. Few people would dream of writing a novel without characters, but a novel without a plot is practically normal. When you speak of what a novel is about, you speak thematically—it’s about surveillance, or displacement, or heterosexuality, or something along these lines.
Initially, Birnam Wood seems to have no aspirations beyond an exploration of young, white, left-wing radicalism and its accompanying guilt—the kind of book that is “about” the anxiety of being a good person under capitalism and/or climate change.
Birnam Wood’s biggest twist is not so much a particular event as the realization that this is a book in which everything that people choose to do matters, albeit not in ways they may have anticipated.
Discovering that they live in a world of consequence, with stakes bigger than self-image or self-respect, is as much of a shock to the characters as it is to us.
Emerging, shocked and stunned, into ‘the world of consequence’, is exactly what Shelley, Mira, Lemoine and the reader do together on page 274. And that is where things get interesting.
Part 2: The ending unpacked (CONTAINS LOTS AND LOTS OF SPOILERS)
Lemoine could feel himself becoming angry. It was pretty fucking irritating, he thought, that he was yet to go a single day of his existence without being reminded, at some point, that the only way of getting a job done to satisfaction was if he did every little part of it himself.
If you haven’t read this book yet, now is the moment at which you bookmark this review and return to it at a later date. You’ll thank me later!
In this section, I’ll cover:
- My understanding of what happens in the last 20 pages, which hopefully might be helpful to anyone who has frantically Googled ‘Birnam Wood ending explained’
- A couple of possible thematic interpretations of the ending
- Why I loved it all so much
Ron Charles writes in The Washington Post:
And once an accidental death upsets everyone’s competing machinations, readers are unlikely to notice anything except the story’s acceleration toward ever more toil and trouble. With terrifying intensity, Catton propels these characters to a finale that prefigures the very apocalypse they’re all trying to forestall. It’s a wry indictment of all the poor players who strut and fret their hours upon this stage and then are heard no more.
Birnam Wood was everything I wanted Donna Tartt’s The Secret History to be. That novel, so intoxicating in its first half, slowed to a crawl after a main character’s death. Here, we see the opposite. Carefully laid foundations give way to a pacey midsection. Then, to draw on Charles and McClay’s wording, the characters’ best-laid plans are rudely interrupted by an accidental death, catapulting them into the ‘world of consequence’. Because death matters, even if it was an accident. Even if it’s of a mildly irritating minor character. Perhaps I’m just very sentimental, but the paragraph in which Jill Darvish realises that Sir Owen may be dead and thinks, in wild, unfurling clauses, that ‘if she could do it over, she’d keep everything exactly as it was’, made me cry.
So I loved that Jill got to enact revenge on Lemoine. Enraged by grief, she flies straight to Christchurch after Sir Owen’s wake, determined to find out why he went to Thorndike, to find out what’s going on with Birnam Wood. She knows that there is something wrong, that something doesn’t add up. ‘This wasn’t done. She wasn’t done.’ We see her act in a calculated, almost manipulative way – almost reminiscent of Lemoine – as she deceives and persuades her children into leaving her alone after the wake.
Early in the morning, she drives to Thorndike. She sees ‘a great many heavy vehicles clustered in the field’ – evidence of Lemoine beginning his mining operation. She takes the back entrance into the farm, ‘taking her phone out of her pocket to check the time – but the battery was dead’. This is a nice touch, helping to explain why Lemoine does not realise she is on the property.
Entering the house, she sees ‘the glass jug from the coffee maker smashed across the floor. One of the dining chairs was on its back; looking down at it, she saw that the middle section of a jagged splash of coffee had been disturbed. Something – or someone – has been dragged through it towards the door.’ When we last saw Lemoine, Mira and Tony, they were having a breakfast coffee, Lemoine taunting Mira about her relationship with Tony, Tony arriving, exhausted and injured, saying to Mira, “Why are you still here?” Why hasn’t she run away? But Mira clearly feels powerless, out of options. Lemoine is now in control, with his driver in the house and other security on the property. It’s clear that a struggle took place, perhaps an argument as Tony tried to fight Lemoine one last time. Did Mira stand up to Lemoine, did she have to be forced? Did Lemoine use one to manipulate the other? We don’t know, but somehow, they were taken down to the Birnam Wood camp.
Jill discovers that the rabbit poison is missing, so when we later read that the activists are ‘contorted where they lay, as if they had discovered all at once that they’d been poisoned’, it’s obvious how Lemoine was able to kill them – after he said to Shelley the night before, “I’ll bring breakfast.” Earlier on, Lemoine pondered how he could frame Tony for the killings when his arm was in a sling, as all of Sir Owen’s guns need two hands to operate. During the following conversation, we read that ‘Lemoine was still thinking about rabbits’ – evidence of the plan forming.
Hearing a series of ‘full-throated, terror-stricken’ screams, Jill springs into action. She believes it is a girl screaming, but we later find out that it is Tony – which serves to paint a picture of this ‘ghastly’, unnatural sound. Jill takes the rifle and skinning knife and makes her way quietly to the camp.
She comes over the crest of the hill and sees below her all the bodies of the Birnam Wood members, poisoned. Tony and, we presume, Mira are handcuffed together to a truck. Mira is ‘dead, or at the very least, unconscious’ – the vomit down her chest suggesting that she too was poisoned, or perhaps sick with disgust at what she saw before being shot.
The vehicles are daubed with graffiti which will serve to frame Tony as the killer: JUSTICE and SHAME. Earlier, we read Lemoine’s plot: ‘A disaffected, sexually frustrated, isolated young man, socially downgraded and rejected from a group he once belonged to, tracks his old friends down to Thorndike, stalks them as they work, convinces himself they’d betrayed their very nature, and then massacres them all’, before killing himself.
The implication is that Tony and Mira were forcefully brought down to the camp and handcuffed while the other members were fed poisoned food and the vehicles were defaced. Exactly how this unfolded is, of course, unclear. Perhaps Tony and Mira were only restrained after the ‘breakfast’ had been served and eaten. Perhaps the breakfast was sent ahead. Perhaps the breakfast that Lemoine tells Tony and Mira to eat at the house was also poisoned, and it was Mira’s already-dead body that was dragged through the spilt coffee – spilt in Tony’s fury when he realises the plot.
Obviously, this is all absolutely horrific, but in the centre of the scene is Lemoine, his psychopathy revealed as he stands casually, ‘one hand in his pocket, scrolling through something on his phone’. Perhaps he is talking to Tony, taunting him further, explaining how he will be framed while he hacks into his phone or computer, perhaps to plant incriminating messages from Tony’s account.
In a triumphant moment of retribution, Jill shoots Lemoine ‘right between the eyes’. However, triumph is short-lived as she herself is shot by the driver after freeing Tony. How Tony is able to get away without also being shot is unclear. We read that he was ‘running now’ – was he simply able to run away? Did the driver also die? Why did he not pursue Tony? As Tony runs through the bush, he hears ‘gunfire behind him’. Is it possible that Jill was able to shoot the driver before the bullets killed her?
There is a clue in Catton’s video with Waterstones, in which she says “One of my principal ambitions for Birnam Wood was to ask myself whether I could do what Jane Austen had done for a comic form for a tragic form. So rather than ending with everybody getting married, my book would take a more tragic direction. Though perhaps that’s saying too much!”
Everyone dies, then, and Catton’s book is the latest in a long line of texts that explore hubris, limitation, disappointment and the agony of gaining self-knowledge. For the members of Birnam Wood, the tragedy is that their dreams of ‘breaking good’ an anti-capitalist gardening collective died the moment they drank from Lemoine’s poisoned chalice. For Lemoine, perhaps the tragedy is simply that, for all his god-like superpowers of limitless wealth and resources, he is never anything more than a human who can be killed with a bullet.
In my last year at Cambridge I spent a term learning about tragedy. That was a few years ago now, but I still remember: tragedy is about coming to realisations too late. Realising your own limitations. Realising that you’ve run out of options. Realising that you’re a victim of a mess entirely of your own making, and try as you might you only have yourself to blame. Realising that you took the first step down the wrong path many moons ago. Realising that you are alone, that you are trapped, that you were mistaken all along.
Charles wrote in the Washington Post that the finale ‘prefigures the very apocalypse they’re all trying to forestall’. Is this, then, a vision of hopelessness, a microcosm of the destruction the human race will bring upon itself? In the end, climate disaster will not discriminate. The young people are the first to go, before the wealthy finish each other off. The characters are struck down with rabbit poison and hunting rifles, an ironic detail that mirrors the cruelty with which humans have treated the natural world.
I read the last 150 pages in two delicious gulps. Is there anything better than not being able to put a book down? To feel one’s eyes dart frantically across the page, spotting yet another shocking twist, then forcing oneself to read the whole page slowly?
I’m not ashamed to say I was rooting for Tony until the very end. I kept thinking that he was going to manage it, that he was going to get away on his broken foot and get the photos developed and break the story. It sounds pathetically optimistic written down, but don’t we always want the little guy to win?
That’s not to say that I adored Tony’s personality – he acted like an idiot most of the time. But people do often act like idiots, and we can still like them, understand them, want them to succeed. I was swept up with the plot’s tension, counting the remaining pages, realising with dread that it was too late, that his very last chance was blown. Like all good writers, Catton made me care.
The last sentence of Birnam Wood is 113 words long and ends with Tony praying that ‘the scale of the destruction would be visible from overhead, so that somebody would see it, so the somebody would notice, so that somebody would care, and as the fire began to blaze and crackle up the ancient trees around him, Tony prayed that somebody would come to put it out.’
Tony’s final prayer is that the fire will be put out before it destroys him and the nature around him. As we hear earlier on, just like a plant, he wants to live.
Even after serving us a tragedy of Ancient Greek proportions, a scene of total death and destruction, ‘more bodies, more vomit, all young people, all dead’ – it is a masterstroke from Catton that she presents us with a hopeful image in the novel’s dying breath. Before death, Tony tries to send a signal to a higher power – almost literally, ‘overhead’. He hopes that someone will notice the fire from above, come down to investigate and discover the wrongdoing. His hope is at once pathetic – the plea that ‘somebody would care’ reminiscent of his earlier delirious conviction that his mother will avenge his death by breaking the story to the press – but it is a hope that the reader fervently shares. In Hamlet, Prince Fortinbras walks in on the scene of death, symbolising the dawn of a new era. A similar hope pervades here; that a new, outside character will walk in after the curtain closes and make sense of it all and deliver justice.
Tragedy isn’t just about running out of time and realising how bad things truly are. It’s also about performance. It’s about pain being witnessed by an audience. It’s about the audience caring, the audience listening, the audience heeding a warning and taking something away with them after the tragic characters have breathed their final breath upon the stage. In this text, perhaps we, the reader, are Fortinbras, who must interpret the scene we find, bear witness to the pain and take forward the lessons that the characters learnt too late. We are the ‘someone who cares’ that Tony prays for.
What do you think happens after the story’s last page? Do you think someone notices the forest fire? How will they interpret the scene they find? Do you think that the presence of Lemoine and Jill’s corpses will complicate the planned interpretation that an aggrieved Tony killed the other members of Birnam Wood? Will anyone work out the truth? Where is the roll of film now? Still in Lemoine’s pocket? Will anyone find it, will anyone bother to develop it? Will they know what they are looking at? Or even if the photos are destroyed, will they find the mine itself further up the hill? Will Lemoine’s secrets be revealed? Will anyone face the consequences – not least for the five deaths caused by the landslide at the start of the book?
How is it possible that Catton is able to kill every character and yet still leave us with a dream of a happy ending? In her video with Waterstones, the author explains her ending beautifully, and with it, how she has mingled together the tragic form and the thriller genre to create something profoundly hopeful that speaks to climate nihilism:
“We’re staring down our own finitude as a species, as a planet, and I think that there’s something very dangerous about thinking like that. It can become a licence to behave however you like, really. But it’s also this kind of depression, the kind of depression that Macbeth voices at the end of Macbeth when Lady Macbeth dies and he says ‘tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ – you know, who cares, this is all just ‘a tale told by an idiot’. He’s such a nihilist in that moment, and so I was very certain in myself that I didn’t want to write a nihilistic book, I didn’t want to write a depressing book. I wanted to write a book that excited you because it made you want to know what was going to happen to these characters. If you achieve that as a writer you’re giving the reader a sense of the future, you’re making them want to keep reading, and so even for a little moment, in that brief time that they’re reading your book, they have a reason to live.”
READ 11 – 21 MARCH 2023
Waterstones YouTube channel: Eleanor Catton on Birnam Wood and its influences
Review by Dwight Garner in The New York Times: Guerrilla Gardeners Meet Billionaire Doomsayer. Hurly-Burly Ensues.
Review by Ron Charles in The Washington Post: In Eleanor Catton’s ‘Birnam Wood,’ the end of the world creeps up fast
Review by B. D. McClay in The New Yorker: Eleanor Catton wants plot to matter again
Review by Kevin Power in The Guardian: hippies v billionaires