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25 February 2023

Eleanor Catton and the problem with “literary thrillers”

Her new novel raises the question: is the genre code for a thriller that simply isn’t very thrilling?

By Erica Wagner

It has been a decade since Eleanor Catton published The Luminaries, which made her the youngest-ever winner of the Booker Prize – she was 28 at the time. That intricate book was a historical mystery, its complex structure drawing on theories of Western astrology. On the surface her new novel, a pacy, contemporary thriller, would appear very different, and yet both books address the exploitation of New Zealand, where Catton grew up, for its natural resources, spinning their stories around the question of who gets to claim what lies beneath stolen land.

In Shakespeare’s Scottish play, Macduff’s army cut branches from Birnam Wood as they advance towards Macbeth who is holed up in Dunsinane Castle believing himself safe, and that the witches’ prophecy – that he shall never be vanquished “till the Wood of Birnam rise” – will never be fulfilled. In Catton’s novel, Birnam Wood is a group of guerrilla gardeners, idealists who plant hardy perennials and fast-growing annuals “on verges and fence-lines, beside motorway off-ramps, inside demolition sites and on junkyards filled with abandoned cars”. They are led by Mira Bunting, a young woman “uninterested in profit and at the same time obsessed by growth”. They battle to keep afloat and salvation seems to come in the form of Robert Lemoine, a mysterious American billionaire who made his fortune in drone technology and who has bought a plot of land, at the edge of Korowai park, a state-protected area in Canterbury, under which he can dig a bunker. When he catches Mira trespassing, he offers to donate $100,000 to fund the struggling organisation.

[See also: How TS Eliot found happiness]

His is the sorcerer’s role, if you like, tempting Mira to betray her principles for that growth she craves, his all-seeing drones seeming to give him greater knowledge than that of mere mortals. But, as in the novel’s source material, all is not as it seems. Lemoine is not really after a post-Armageddon hiding-place. He is secretly mining the park for rare earth minerals, pumping poison into the ground to do so – and causing landslides that handily cut off the land from those visitors who are less intrepid than Mira and her crew, and which are easily explicable as natural phenomena.

Is that a spoiler? Clearly I’ve decided it isn’t, since it appears before the first quarter of the book has passed – and therein lies the issue with this “literary thriller”, as it’s being described. An author is not responsible for the way in which her book is sold, but I’ve come to feel that “literary thriller” is code for: a thriller that’s just… not sufficiently thrilling. I wished the information about Lemoine’s true motives had been withheld for much longer; the character dynamics that otherwise propel the story are not quite compelling enough to compensate. Mira’s second-in-command – in theory Birnam Wood has a “horizontal” structure, where everyone is equal, but of course no such structure is ever possible – is Shelley Noakes, three years younger than Mira and just moving away from being in her thrall. There’s tension between them, but not enough. Tony Gallo is a disaffected former member of Birnam Wood trying to make his name as a journalist. He begins to suspect that all is not right in Korowai. The trouble is, we know too much about what Tony does not know; the dramatic irony is more literary than thrilling.

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Catton’s political themes are sympathetic – this is the story of young people who rightly feel that their future has been stolen from them, that the planet is burning up, that they are at the mercy of rich and ruthless men like Lemoine. She demonstrates how we are also at the mercy of the devices in our pockets: how we can be tracked and surveilled, how easy it is for bad actors to gain access to our most intimate selves. Lemoine, a tech-bro oligarch inspired, Catton has said, by Peter Thiel, is her embodiment of this 21st-century threat. Yet it seems as if she can’t decide whether he’s a moustache-twirling baddy or, at times, the voice of reason – and a little bit hunky, to boot. 

Catton writes beautifully about the landscape, “arrowy poplars” throwing a “toothy shadow” over the land; her physical descriptions are keen and vivid. When Tony bivouacs in Korowai, setting up camp in the pouring rain, the scene is so seductive I could almost imagine doing something like that myself. Almost.

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If Birnam Wood is engaging rather than engrossing, there are still pleasures to be had in Eleanor Catton’s elegant prose and wry observations. It is also a love song to New Zealand – and to all the places under grievous threat from humankind’s ambition.  

Birnam Wood
By Eleanor Catton
Granta, 432pp, £20

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[See also: How George Saunders became literature’s Mr Nice Guy]

This article appears in the 01 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Mission