Birnam Wood

A New Zealand guerrilla gardening collective and the head of an American tech giant would seem unlikely bedfellows. And yet an alliance forms, at least for a time, in the slow build that is Birnam Wood, Eleanor Catton's maximally rewarding existential thriller. It's 2017, and 29-year-old Mira Bunting, founder of the financially floundering Birnam Wood, seeks land to work. Without first securing permission, the collective accesses land and water in exchange for sharing half of the crop yield with the host. (Birnam Wood member Shelley understands that Mira's goal is "nothing less than radical, widespread, and lasting social change"; Shelley's mother considers Birnam Wood "a frankly illegal scheme of trespassing and botanical vandalism.") Mira learns that some land in Thorndike might be available. She visits the property, expecting it to be deserted, and runs into an American who somehow knows her name. The man is Robert Lemoine, a billionaire venture capitalist and cofounder of the American technology corporation Autonomo. When Robert tells Mira, "I'll stay out of your way if you stay out of mine," it sets up an uneasy coexistence and, ultimately, a high-stakes confrontation.

New Zealander Catton, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize for The Luminaries, employs a roving perspective that captures the viewpoints of various players whose morality is not only less than clear-cut but, as pages turn, increasingly malleable. Birnam Wood is a devastating meditation on the price of doing good and the compromises that people make in the public's interest--or so they tell themselves. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

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