Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton: A review


Guerrilla gardening? Is that really a thing? Well, in this book it is. And maybe if it isn't it should be.

Guerrilla gardeners essentially invade land that is not being used and they plant things on it. Mostly vegetables. And then they distribute the produce from their plantings.

Moreover, these guerrilla gardeners steal things other than the use of land that doesn't belong to them:

"They took cuttings from suburban gardens, leaf litter out of public parks and manure from farmland. Mira had stolen scions from commercial apple orchards — budding whips of Braeburn and Royal Gala that she grafted to the stocks of sour crab-apple trees — and equipment out of unlocked garden sheds, though only, she insisted, in wealthy neighborhoods, and only those tools that did not seem to be in frequent use."

So this guerrilla gardening collective cultivates disused land wherever they can find it. It might be along road verges or motorway offramps, demolition sites, or junkyards. Any vacant space is a garden waiting to happen in their philosophy.

Birnam Wood is in New Zealand and we get to know its activities through three of its members: Mira, a 29-year-old trained horticulturist; Shelley, Mira's best friend who has a self-deprecating sense of humor and who is longing to leave the collective; and Tony, a trust-fund kid now a journalist who spent several years traveling and is looking for a big scoop.

At the center of the story is billionaire doomsteader Robert Lemoine who made his money manufacturing high-tech drones. He has plans to build an elaborate bunker into the ground on a tract of land he's purchasing. Birnam Wood and Lemoine collide when he catches Mira on his property scouting for land to cultivate.

And then a strange thing happens: Robert and Mira find that they like each other. They recognize in each other the "outlaw mentality" that doesn't believe that rules and boundaries apply to them. Robert proposes investing in Birnam Wood. He views it as an opportunity to provide cover for some of his less salubrious activities. But will the collective hold its nose and get into bed with the billionaire drone-maker?

I liked the Birnam Wood collective quite a lot. I sympathized with their gardening activities. The author Eleanor Catton is either a gardener herself or she did some extensive and effective research to be able to get inside the head of gardeners and understand how they think. Her novel was an extremely pleasurable read for me. I will look forward to seeing what she gives us in the future.


  1. This is the first I've heard about this book, so I thank you for sharing it with us. Let me see if I can find a copy.

    I often think about planting trees on the two acres next door to me. It belongs to the church next door. Perhaps I should ask permission, though...

  2. What an original and interesting idea! I would like to read it -- and a nice change from the murder mysteries I seem to be stuck in. P. x

  3. I think I just commented anonymously -- sorry! P.x

  4. Guerilla gardening! That's awesome. I have to read this one. :D

  5. I came across this book while working on The Poisoned Pen's Pinterest boards. Your review makes me want to watch the virtual event the author did with Barbara Peters.

  6. I've not heard of this book until I read your review of it. It sounds like a great read!

  7. Hmm. I didn't realize it was a gardening novel. That makes it more appealing. I'm a bit curious.


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