Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton

Birnam WoodBirnam Wood by Eleanor Catton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mira and Shelley are two young Kiwi women who have founded an underground horticultural collective called Birnam Wood. They find spots in New Zealand that are unused, e.g. roadside strips, plant crops there, and sell them. While exploring a vacant site, Mira encounters Robert, a shameless exploitative American billionaire seeking to savage the land to extract valuable minerals, but Mira doesn’t realize his true plans and forms an alliance with him. It’s fair to call this an eco-thriller. The premise is imaginative and the writing mostly entertaining. It’s a true page turner through the last third of the book. But rating it accurately is impossible because there were so many good things about it (just mentioned), but smothered in abysmal writing through most of the book. I don’t know how to balance them out so I chose three stars almost at random.

So I told you the good; what’s so bad? Let’s start with the length. The hardback edition is 423 pages holding what should be a 250 page book. As if that’s not enough, it’s almost solid ink from margin to margin. If you open the book at nearly any point, there will be no dialogue and no more than one paragraph break on a page. It must have almost twice the words per page as the typical thriller, which means the effective page count is more like 700. The main reason for this is that the author writes almost entirely in run-on sentences. I got so frustrated I actually counted two. On p. 156-157 one sentence ran for 278 words. At least it had one semicolon. I counted a 220-word sentence on page 186. The author and the editors, Jenna Johnson and Bella Lacey, must have flunked English 1A or lost their blue pencils. All three of them should have had someone whop them upside their heads. It was agonizing to read for the first 272 pages, where the action begins, but if you can learn to skip the interior 90% of those long run-on sentences, it moves okay. In addition to the ridiculous surplus verbiage, the plot revolves around the collective members, rather obnoxious tree-hugging vegans arguing with each other in lengthy PC politco-babble about their devil’s bargain with the American corporate Lucifer, Robert.

Back to the good stuff. The author has done a creditable job of making the characters both original and believable. There’s a complicated relationship between Mira, the leader, and Shelley, the second banana, between Robert and the owner of the property in question, a pretentious businessman who was recently knighted, and between Mira and Tony, an ex-member (and ex-boyfriend) who left the group and is hell-bent on exposing Robert’s evil shenanigans. She has a knack for filling in little homey details to make events seem real and must have done a lot of research. The setting was exotic and interesting, at least for me. There were many witty, amusing moments right from the start, although crammed into 200-word sentences.

But worst of all is the ending. {Spoiler alert — sort of — but not really. You might want to stop here if you plan on reading the book anyway} I don’t actually know the ending, because I don’t know how it ended. There was violence at the end. I don’t know who survived and who didn’t. I don’t know what happened to those who did survive. There were deaths – did anyone get punished or even investigated? I read to the end, so that’s not the problem. The author just left the readers hanging in the middle of it all. I’ve read some other reviews and they all seem to think that was the ending. I can’t believe the author would leave it like that. I can’t believe any editor would allow it unless – and this is what I think must be the case – the author is already working on the sequel to finish the story. When there is a series like this, there should be a warning that this is Book 1 in the XYZ mysteries or whatnot. There is no such warning and nothing at the end promotes any Volume II. Strange. I guess the bottom line is that despite these egregious problems, I was very engaged at least for the last third of the book and eager to read the next page. It went faster than the length would indicate and I admit I enjoyed a lot of it until I became enraged at the “ending.”

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