Birnam Wood Book Summary - Birnam Wood Book explained in key points
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Birnam Wood summary

Eleanor Catton

A Novel

21 mins
Table of Contents

    Birnam Wood
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    An offer they could have refused

    Shelley Noakes wanted out. For four and half years, she’d been a devoted member of Birnam Wood, an activist collective that had been started five years ago by her friend and roommate Mira Bunting. 

    The group, which was around a dozen strong these days, was based in Christchurch, New Zealand, and was committed to reclaiming neglected land for agricultural use. They’re guerrilla farmers, essentially. Sometimes, they trespassed or stole from commercial farms. But the end justifies the means. The harvested produce was either given to those in need, shared within the community, or sold to fund more supplies. They had a vision: to enlighten people about the wastefulness of land use and to instigate social reform.

    Shelley was still a believer but she found her relationship with Mira increasingly untenable. She was tired of her role as Mira's reliable sidekick. It had become demeaning and stifling. But, when talking to Mira, she could never find the right words to express herself.

    So while Shelley was at home applying to other job postings, Mira was at the library researching a potential new target for the group in the nearby town of Thorndike. The land belonged to Owen and Jill Darvish. Owen was a prominent figure, about to be awarded a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to conservation.

    In fact, Owen Darvish had used his upcoming knighthood to announce a joint venture with an American tech company called Autonomo, which specialized in making drones. As Owen explained to the press, the drones would be used to monitor the populations of both invasive and endangered species better.

    The property was situated on 153 hectares of land and shared a border with the Korowai National Park. Mira noticed that it had been for sale, but a recent earthquake and subsequent landslide had seemingly caused the listing to disappear. The landslide, which killed five people, had closed off the only major road leading out of town, turning the small community into a sleepy cul-de-sac. The property was sure to be abandoned until the road was cleared, which could take months.

    When Mira returned home to tell Shelley about the property, she wasn’t there. So Mira decided to head to Thorndike on her own.

    The reason Shelley wasn’t at home that afternoon was that Mira’s old flame Tony Gallo had suddenly shown up at the house looking for Mira. Shelley suggested they go out for drinks and catch up. Over a couple beers, Tony explained that, over the past three years, he’d backpacked around South America and tried his hand at freelance journalism, which backfired. He wrote an article about his experiences in Mexico that went viral in all the wrong ways, with accusations of poverty tourism and white privilege. It was humiliating.

    When the conversation inevitably moved to Birnam Wood things got awkward. Tony was a founding member of the collective and it was clear that he still had feelings for Mira and was still upset that they’d split on bad terms.

    Over the following days, Shelley received periodic texts from Mira. It sounded like Thorndike was a promising place for Birnam Wood. She knew she should probably tell Mira about Tony, but she never did.

    As it turned out, Mira was also keeping things from Shelley. On her first day in Thorndike, she was caught snooping around the property by Robert Lemoine, the cofounder and former CEO of Autonomo. When he confronted her, he already knew her name, which caught her completely off guard. He explained that it was because the name of her phone signal, “Mira’s iPhone,” popped up on his screen when she entered the property.

    Even though Mira’s initial instinct was to run away, Robert ended up charming her. Or maybe it was the other way around. Robert liked Mira’s confidence and her sharp intellect. Maybe she could be useful, he thought.

    Around two weeks later, Mira returned home ready to pitch the idea of starting a new project on the Thorndike property, completely funded by Robert Lemoine. What Mira didn’t expect was that Tony Gallo would be at the meeting.

    By the time she arrived, Tony had already turned the group against him by getting into a heated argument with another member. Tony was in mansplaining mode, talking about how modern liberal ideologies were playing into the hands of the capitalist machinery. So, when Mira mentioned that Robert Lemoine had already deposited $10,000 into her bank account, Tony saw this as another perfect example.

    As Mira explained, the $10,000 came with no strings attached. Robert was a venture capitalist, this was what he did. They’d have a few months to do their thing, and if he liked what he saw, he’d make a proposal for long-term budgeting. In a way, this was what Birnam Wood needed. This was the break that could finally turn them into a viable, functioning nonprofit, capable of taking on bigger, more meaningful projects.

    But Tony was insistent: no. Getting into bed with a guy like Robert Lemoine? A guy who made drones that were turning the world into a totalitarian surveillance state? This went against every principle Birnam Wood was founded upon.

    Seeing Mira’s discomfort, and feeling partly responsible for it, Shelley spoke up and backed the Thorndike project. The rest of the group, being fed up with Tony, sided with Shelley. After Tony stormed off in disgust, plans were set in motion for the group to pack up and head to Thorndike.


    A fateful decision has been made. This first section lays a lot of groundwork to explain why a group of well-meaning, liberal-minded people might strike a deal with a guy who’d otherwise be more of an enemy than a friend.

    The reasoning is a potent mixture of difficult personalities, troubled history, heated politics, and extenuating circumstances. But mostly, the decision is the result of the kind of ironic twists of fate that often occur in Shakespearean tragedies. If only things had played out a little differently. If only Mira had been home when Tony showed up. Or if Shelley had texted Mira about Tony before the meeting. Or if Tony hadn’t been so eager to pick a fight. Then, maybe, the group would have been more willing to question the ethics of the Thorndike project. And maybe a lot of tears and bloodshed could have been avoided.

    And what kind of guy is Robert Lemoine, anyway? Let’s see ...

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    What is Birnam Wood about?

    Birnam Wood (2023) is an engrossing thriller about what happens when a group of idealistic activists cross paths with the wrong venture capitalist. What looks like an amazing opportunity soon turns into a deadly nightmare, full of lies, cover-ups, and dangerous bedfellows.

    Who should read Birnam Wood?

    • Fans of suspenseful stories
    • People interested in modern eco-thrillers
    • Anyone looking for a novel filled with surprises, twists, and turns

    About the Author

    Eleanor Catton is an author and screenwriter from New Zealand who won the prestigious Booker Prize with her 2013 novel The Luminaries. She was also a writer and showrunner for the BBC television series based on that novel, and the screenwriter behind Emma, the 2020 movie adaptation of the classic Jane Austen novel.

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