Hecate and the Three Witches, Shakespeare’s MacBeth
This novel, the first in ten years, since Eleanor Catton won the Booker Prize 2013 for The Luminaries, sounded intriguing and looking up the significance of Birnam Wood in Shakespeare’s MacBeth had me quietly hopeful.
Shakespeare’s three witches were women believed to have the ability for foresee events – (intuitives, regarded as supernatural thus often portrayed as old crones with or without pointy hats) – who made cryptic predictions of Macbeth’s ascent to kingship and eventual downfall.
They are women, present, often brushed aside, whose warnings have long been ignored, opinions under-estimated or ridiculed. Macbeth believed the first prediction and ignored the second, both would come to fruition, the messenger’s long forgotten.
It is interesting that Catton uses the analogy of Birnam Wood and its association with women who speak out, as she too has a little history of having said some things about those in power in her own country and been belittled for it. Will the passage of time demonstrate that those words uttered might too have been a kind of prophecy? Perhaps they were too obvious, and so now we have something a little more cryptic to figure out. A Birnam Wood analogy of New Zealand.
Catton’s Theatre, An Eco-Tech-Thriller(y) Political Maelstrom
Birnam Wood is populated with characters that loosely connect to Shakespeare’s play. Our three women are present, and they appropriately, are not always as they seem on the outside. There are the men with power, twin aspects, one acquired through politics, the other wealth and the MacDuff character, recently returned from his travels, the righteous young freelancer Tony, armed with his pen to combat tyranny and fight against evil, something of a loner, acting independently of the group.
Sadly, the novel suffered from a head spinning beginning, in which the righteous characters dominate the conversation, which read like speeches. Looking back, I can see why that might have been done, but the abundance of proselytising in the opening pages almost had me put it aside. It was not a great start. Characters shared verbose opinions and given space on the page to rant, they were like an unwelcome ambush. Way too theatrical.
Eco-Warriors, A Tech Billionaire, Neo-Liberal Politician
I persevered (a characteristic I associate with reading Catton) and the novel becomes a kind of cat and mouse, eco-warrior-tech suspense story, set in New Zealand’s South Island, in 2017.
Birnam Wood itself is the name of a gardening collective, a group of people doing gently rebellious activism, planting sustainable gardens in places where they don’t have permission. There is a rivalrous friendship between the founder Mira and her flatmate, sidekick Shelley, who we learn early on has a desire to undermine her friend.
When a past member Tony turns up looking for Mira, the focus of the novel changes and becomes more character and action oriented. Embarrassing himself at the group’s six weekly ‘hui’ (meeting), he maintains a low profile, until he has an idea for an investigative journalism scoop he thinks is going to make his career. No one else knows what he is up to, he becomes something of the lone wolf, loyal to the cause, the avenging hero.
Mira hears about a farm up for sale, that has been cut off due to a landslide and thinks it might be a good location for their next project, she decides to scout the location for suitability.
A Billionaire’s Secret Agenda, Altruistic or Ambitious?
She is unaware that someone else has an idea for the property, with a very different agenda. Lemoine is an American tech mogul billionaire looking to build a bolt hole in an isolated location in New Zealand. Their paths cross and it seems they might be able to coexist, despite the risk of compromising the group’s ideals.
The farm, nestled up against a national park, was inherited by Jill Darvish; her husband Owen, a self-made pest-control business man has just been knighted for services to conservation, though he is unsure exactly why.
Everyone pursues their agenda – unaware of being under the watchful eye of the man with the money, while another with few resources, pieces together the larger picture of a potentially damaging conspiracy.
Like the “wood” referred to by Macbeth’s witches, a warning brushed aside, so too Catton’s three women characters provide clues to the demise of the men who hold power in her story.
Catton excels at mining the introspective psychological depths of her characters intentions, behaviours and motivations and once the plot moves to the farm, the pace picks up and it becomes a more engaging read.
An intriguing writer, there is an element of unpredictability, that feeling of not knowing what will come next, given how different all three of her novels have been from each other, crossing genre – a writer experimenting with form, taking her time but unafraid to try something completely different. And so again, who knows what she might write next.
Interview Guardian: Eleanor Catton: ‘I felt so much doubt after winning the Booker’ by Lisa Allardice
Review Guardian: ‘hippies v billionaires’ – The Booker winner captures our collective despair in a thrillerish novel about climate crisis by Kevin Power
Review The SpinOff, NZ: Birnam Wood review: An astounding analysis of human psychology by Claire Mabey
Eleanor Catton, Author
Eleanor Catton was born in 1985 in Ontario, Canada and raised in New Zealand.
Her first novel, The Rehearsal, won the 2007 Adam Award from the International Institute of Modern Letters, and a Betty Trask Award. Her second novel, The Luminaries, was awarded the the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award.
N.B. Thank you to Granta Publications for the ebook Advance Reader Copy, provided via Netgalley. Published 2 March, 2023.