In Act 1 of Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth questions his plan to commit regicide against King Duncan, saying, “I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself / And falls on th’other.” Vaulting ambition and the willful blindness that can accompany it form the tragedy of Birnam Wood, Eleanor Catton’s third novel and the follow-up to her 2013 Booker Prize winner, The Luminaries.
The Birnam Wood of the title refers not to the Scottish town of the play but to an activist collective in New Zealand whose members harvest crops planted “without permission on public or unattended lands.” The group’s founder, Mira Bunting, has an idealistic goal: “radical, widespread, and lasting social change” that shows “how arbitrary and absurdly prejudicial the entire concept of land ownership” is. But there’s a problem: The collective has trouble breaking even.
A possible solution arrives in the form of a natural disaster, when earthquakes lead to a landslide, causing the closure of the Korowai Pass and cutting off the small fictional town of Thorndike. Not far from the site of the landslide is a farm owned by the soon-to-be-knighted Owen Darvish. Paradoxically, Owen’s pest control service has partnered with American tech corporation Autonomo on a conservation project to rescue endemic species from extinction. Mira’s plan: buy the farm for Birnam Wood.
In both of her novels, Catton has shown that she’s an expert at building tension from an intricate plot. One of the complicating factors in Birnam Wood is Autonomo co-founder Robert Lemoine, “a serial entrepreneur, a venture capitalist, and, apparently, a billionaire.” He wants to build a bunker on the farm and store precious cargo that would make him, “by several orders of magnitude, the richest person who had ever lived.” When he catches Mira on the property, he suggests they join forces, but in true Shakespearean fashion, Robert’s intent may not be what he claims.
Catton brilliantly weaves other characters and plot elements into the mix, among them Tony Gallo, a former collective member and would-be journalist who rails against capitalism, wants to write “a searing indictment of the super-rich” and is keen to expose Robert for who he is. Tony is too broadly drawn, and Catton sometimes over-explains the plot, but Birnam Wood is still a powerful portrait of the uncomfortable relationship between capitalism and idealism, and the compromises and trade-offs one might accept in pursuit of a goal. As some of Catton’s characters learn, vaulting ambition can be admirable, but if one o’erleaps and falls, the landing is anything but smooth.
Correction, March 7, 2023: This article has been updated to reflect that Birnam Wood is Catton’s third novel and The Luminaries is her second.