The following is from Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood. Catton is the author of the international bestseller The Luminaries, winner of the Man Booker Prize. Her debut novel, The Rehearsal, won the Betty Trask Award, was short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award and the Dylan Thomas Prize. She is also the screenwriter of Emma, a 2020 feature ﬁlm adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. Born in Canada and raised in New Zealand, she now lives in Cambridge, England.
Mira’s first thought, on coming home to the empty flat, had been that Shelley had finally done it: packed up all her things and left, without warning, and without a note. After calling Shelley’s name and hearing no reply, she had stood in the open doorway for several seconds, reconciling herself to the new though long-expected reality of Shelley being gone – before her vision clarified and she saw that Shelley’s bike was still in the laundry, and her shoes were still piled beneath the radiator, and her beloved bomber jacket was still hanging on its coat hook in the hall. Feeling foolish, Mira hastily revised her thought to wonder, instead, if some sudden emergency had taken Shelley from the house . . . But if that were the case, then wouldn’t she have called – or texted, at the very least?
She remembered suddenly the location tracker app that they had both installed some months ago, and never used. She got out her phone to check if the connection was still active, but in the brief time it took for the device to fetch Shelley’s data from whatever configuration of satellites and local masts were coordinating her position, she grew ashamed of the intrusion, and exited the map before it fully loaded, reproaching herself that it was no wonder Shelley had been feeling smothered, and wondering, not for the first time, when exactly she had become so technologically dependent that her first instinct in every unpredicted circumstance was to outsource her imagination to her phone.
Two weeks had passed since she had first divined that Shelley wanted out of Birnam Wood, and for two weeks she had been paralysed by the same mute and stricken helplessness that she had felt when her parents first announced their separation – chiding herself, as she had then, that at her age and state of independence it was absurd that she should feel so childishly forsaken, and so sad. Mira was a remorseless critic of her own emotions. She frequently disparaged what she felt and thought, and she was quick to punish anything she judged to be a sign of moral weakness, no matter how privately or invisibly it was expressed. She hated how the divorce had come to quantify her relationships with both her parents, such that one weekend dinner with her mother now placed her one weekend dinner with her father in debt, and every conversation, every holiday, every shared interest, even every congenital resemblance now felt inscribed in a vast ledger of credit and debit that somehow it was her responsibility to balance. She felt cheapened by the effort, monetised, contractualised, demeaned – and so she did not allow the feeling; instead, she simply squashed it, telling herself, in a tone of matronly admonishment, that divorce was not uncommon, that other people were vastly more unfortunate, and that unless her health or her life had been threatened, then she had no business to complain. So it was with Shelley now. Mira was devastated by the thought of her departure, but her instinct for self-censure was so strong that she denied her devastation almost before she had even identified that that was what it was; this left her with the sense of being both entirely bereft and entirely blameworthy, having condemned herself for what she would not permit herself to feel.
The maxim of Mira’s childhood had been that she was older than her years. Her parents had been fond of entertaining, and when she was young it had been a point of pride for them that she could hold her own among their adult friends, sitting up late at the dinner table in the bohemian detritus of empty bottles and dripping candles burning low, following the conversation, and even interjecting now and then with her own precocious point of view. When she was a child her father had worked as an urban planner for the city council, and her mother as an academic in the field of international relations; their circle of acquaintance was wide, and – as Mira would only really comprehend much later – almost universally left-wing, a fact that naturally came to shape Mira’s own political expressions, for her contributions at the table were never more appreciated than when they reflected what was commonly agreed. She had grown up with a stout faith in the proven clarity of right and wrong, and had never doubted for a moment that to be treated as an adult was better than to be treated as a child; but she had feared, in lonely moments, that for her parents she existed merely as a kind of party trick, a dazzling proof of how well she had been parented, a living testament not to her own powers of conviction and discernment, but to theirs. Even as an adult she could not dispel, at times, a nagging sense of fraudulence, that she was most valued for what she most easily performed.
Her parents had been surprised by her vocation. Like many ardent followers of politics, they tended towards impatience when it came to the processes of natural change; they were indifferent gardeners, and had kept a compost heap more to reduce the volume of their household waste than out of any fascination for its uses. The backyard of Mira’s childhood home had been mostly laid to lawn. There was a raised bed against the bottom fence that Mira’s father had turned into a sandpit when she was very young, only to be abandoned when the neighbourhood cats began to use it as a litter box. It had stayed untouched for almost a decade, the plastic starfish and crenellated buckets fading to pastel against the darkening crust of sand, before anyone raised the prospect of restoring the bed to its proper function – which had happened, Mira could remember exactly, on the evening of her first day of high school. At her Year 9 induction she had been paired with a girl named Emily Alcorn whose lunch contained the unimaginable sophistication of cherry tomatoes, basil leaves, and baby mozzarella balls, each ingredient stored in a separate compartment and then combined, with great ritual and solemnity, on the back of her lunchbox lid. Mira had been entranced. She had rushed home to beg her mother to begin buying cherry tomatoes instead of regular, and her mother, who at the time was reading a self-help book on the power of initiative, had replied that maybe she should try to grow her own.
The challenge was accepted with far more seriousness than it had been made. By the following year, Mira had two dozen different crops in germination, and had extended the reconverted sandpit the full length of the fence. She planted marigolds as pesticides, planned crop rotations, built cold frames and hotbeds, saved the family’s coffee grounds for mulch; and the more her parents wondered at her perseverance, the more she persevered. With her schoolmates, however, she was intensely secretive, and took to pushing soft soap beneath her fingernails before she gardened, to make it easier afterwards to wash away the dirt. She knew that horticulture was a strange passion for a teenage girl, and for all her inherent unconventionality she was not above the adolescent terror of exposure, the dread of never being normal and never fitting in. Emily Alcorn had long since moved on to other friends and no doubt other lunches, but she remained for Mira a kind of private benchmark of refinement and good taste – an image that was largely fantasy, since they had hardly spoken on the day of their induction, and after it, they never spoke again.
None of Mira’s boyfriends had ever lasted more than a couple of months, and because she had never been the kind of girl to claim best-friendships, it had come almost as a shock to recognise, belatedly, that her relationship with Shelley had been the closest and most constant of her adult life. She was ashamed to realise how completely she had taken Shelley’s friendship for granted, all the more because a source of private guilt for her was the fact – never openly acknowledged – that deep down, she preferred the company of men. Her favoured style of conversation was impassioned argument that bordered on seduction, and although it was distasteful, not to mention tactically unwise, to admit that one enjoyed flirtation, she never felt freer, or funnier, or more imaginatively potent than when she was the only woman in the room. If ever this preference were to be pointed out to her, Mira knew that she would stridently deny it. She felt that it exposed a defect in her character – disloyalty to her own sex, first of all, but deeper than that, a vanity, an appetite, a capacity for manipulation that she would rather other people did not see; she knew, and was ashamed to know, that one of the reasons she had never taken Shelley’s friendship all that seriously was that it lacked any sense of sexual possibility or contest. There was no danger between them, nothing fearsome or uncertain, no provocation, no romance; with Shelley, she always knew that she was safe.
Except she wasn’t, because she had treated Shelley badly, and now Shelley wanted out – and Mira found herself, as she had with her parents’ separation, in a situation where her most cherished and most practised social skills were simply of no use. Debate was worthless, the exercise of charm beside the point; and having committed, long ago, to the performance of a mature and self-sufficient rationality, she now found herself without either the language or the power to express how deeply she was grieving. She wished more than anything that she could reverse her course, convey more gratitude and sympathy, show more interest in Shelley’s inner life, confess, as she could still barely confess to herself, that the air of fearless self-assurance she projected was merely an imposture, a front designed to ward off intimacy and to banish her immense uncertainty and moral guilt. She wished that she could tell her friend the honest truth, which was not that she loved her because she needed her, but that she needed her because she loved her, and in her monumental stupidity and self-absorption, she had only just figured that out. Mira disliked to feel that she was wallowing; she tended to follow moments of severe self-criticism with rapid and decisive action. She had come home intending to suggest to Shelley that they drive down to Thorndike on the weekend, a five-hour trip that would take them well outside their usual sphere of operation and afford them both a healthy change of scene. Cycling back to the flat that afternoon, she had imagined describing to Shelley what a single season at the Darvish farm could do for Birnam Wood, had envisaged Shelley’s excitement at the prospect of the trip, had conjured, in her mind’s eye, the conversation that in recent weeks had become a persistent and increasingly alluring fantasy: Shelley confiding, with none of the fatigued apprehension or forced politeness that had dogged her manner lately, that she had been on the verge of leaving, but this – Mira had auditioned many schemes for ‘this’ – had changed her mind. Now, standing in the kitchen with her phone loose in her hand, Mira rebuked herself again for having indulged in such craven wishful thinking. She told herself, sternly, that Shelley needed space – and then resolved, immediately, to be the one to give it to her. Even before she had fully voiced the thought, she was decided. She would go to Thorndike alone, at once, tonight; she would scope out the farm; she would give Shelley a few days to relax and hopefully to reconsider; and she would come back having killed two birds, as it were, with one stone. She kicked off her shoes and went into her bedroom to pack.
One of the reasons that horticulture held such strong appeal for Mira was that it offered her a respite from this habit of relentless interior critique. When she made things grow, she experienced a kind of manifest forgiveness, an abiding moving-on and making-new that she found impossible in almost every other sphere of life. Even in her failures and mistakes – as when she learned that onion seeds don’t tend to keep, or that low soil temperatures result in carrots that are pale, or that fennel inhibits growth in other plants and should be propagated only on its own – she never felt chastised, for truth, in a garden, did not take the form of rectitude, and right was not the opposite of wrong. To learn even something as simple as to water the roots of a plant rather than its leaves was not to be dealt the harsh reality of cold hard fact, but rather to be let into a secret. In a garden, expertise was personal and anecdotal – it was allegorical – it was ancient – it had been handed down; one felt that gardeners across the generations were united in a kind of guild, and that every counsel had the quality of wisdom, gentle, patient, and holistic – and yet unwavering, for there was no quarrelling with the laws and tendencies of nature, no room for judgment, no dispute: the proof lay only in the plants themselves, and in the soil, and in the air, and in the harvest.
As she saw it, the opportunity presented by the Darvish farm was twofold. First was the fact of the land itself: one hundred and fifty-three good hectares in a town that was likely to remain deserted until at least the spring. None of Birnam’s planting sites in the city offered anywhere near that kind of scope – Mira was constantly frustrated by their inability to produce at scale – and if they could just manage to get a season’s worth of crops into the ground without getting caught, she thought, then the income they could generate might be enough, in and of itself, to give Birnam Wood a shot at solvency. Maybe Shelley could finally launch the subscription service that she had always talked about; or maybe they could put the funds towards their own expansion, reaching out to like-minded organisations perhaps, or registering as a charity, or maybe even paying for a spot of advertising to grow their client base, little though Mira liked that idea.
And if they did get caught – well, that also presented an interesting opportunity. Between the press coverage of the knighthood and the reporting on the landslide on the pass, Thorndike had been much in the public consciousness in recent months, and if Birnam Wood could stage a demonstration on the Darvish property, Mira thought – if they could arrange to be caught in the act of trespassing – if they could invite prosecution, even, for the alleged crime of planting a sustainable organic garden on an empty tract of land – and if they could then present to the media exactly what they’d planted, and explain their mission, and enumerate their goals, and prove themselves to be serious and good-hearted professionals whose work was tidy, and efficient, and fruitful, and thoughtful, and respectful of the land – would that not be a form of breaking good? They would risk criminal charges, of course, but at least they’d get their message out. And since Owen Darvish was to be knighted for services to conservation, at the very least they might provoke an interesting debate.
As she hunted through her chest of drawers for woollen socks and polypropylenes, she rehearsed in her mind the message she would send to Shelley. ‘Hey,’ she imagined writing, ‘I’ve been getting the sense that you could do with a bit of space’ – but that was too accusing. ‘Hey,’ she tried again, ‘I figured you might appreciate a bit of time to yourself.’ Too passive-aggressive? ‘Hey, I thought we could both do with a bit of a break.’ Inaccurate – and too cloying. ‘Hey, I’ve been a bit worried lately that . . .’ ‘Hey, I hope I haven’t misread this, but . . .’ ‘Hey, just to let you know . . .’ At last, zipping up her duffel bag, she settled on, ‘Hey Shel. I’m going to get out of your hair for a few days. Reckon you deserve a break. Interesting possible site in Thorndike down south – looks like the town’s emptied out post Korowai Pass closure which could be good for us. Breaking good?! I’ll let you know . . . anyway take care and see you in a bit x’. She typed it out, but hesitated over pressing send: better perhaps to wait until she was on her way out of town, in case Shelley texted back and asked to come along – for Mira had convinced herself that the only practicable course of action left to her was to go to Korowai alone. She saved the message as a draft and went outside to load the van.
Credit line should read: Excerpted from Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2023 by Eleanor Catton. All rights reserved.