Birnam Wood

By Eleanor Catton

We’ve had a few duds at book club in recent months, so were hoping to break that trend when we voted in the books two weeks ago. This time they were both classified “mystery”. One was a YA book (No, thank you), and the other was Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton. This one actually made it in after a revote as it was quite close between our original book two (Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett) and the books that missed out.

Being from a NZ author, there has been quite a big buzz about this book. Which I think is what made this one win out. Well, that and the copies were all available straight away, as opposed to waiting several weeks to restock from an overseas publisher. When I was in Wellington for work this week, I soon saw the buzz was even bigger than what I had seen from the high piles in all the Rotorua book shops. Unity Books had full advertising at their door.

Most of book club had read the author’s first book, The Luminaries. I think it might have been a book club book that I missed. The general feeling from book club was the first book wasn’t great and several had jumped ship part way through. Despite that, there were a decent number who voted for this book in the hopes it would be better.

Well as I didn’t read the first book, I can’t comment on how it compares. I can however say categorically No, this isn’t a good book. It is almost entirely uninteresting. Or at least the first 200 pages before I decided enough was enough. It was a very slow start and took a long time to introduce people and set the scene. I read a lot of Fantasy, as is evidenced in this blog, so I don’t have a problem with that, so long as the people and scene setting is interesting. This was not. Around the 150 page mark I got a spark of interest to see what might happen, but that was smothered by page 180 and the last 20 pages to meet the 200 page goal I had set for myself was a slog. I had to force every single one of those pages.

The blurb tells us that the book is about a guerilla gardening group that plants vegetable gardens wherever it can. They go down to do this in large scale on a property in an area partly cut off due to a landslide, where they have the support of a questionable character who has his own agenda. Almost half way in (the book is 422 pages), we still know very little more than that. Unless you count that we now know the characters are all unlikeable and the author has an agenda – a very unsubtle one.

The prose is nothing to write home about. And there are no chapters! The book is divided into parts and then it is just lots and lots of pages with some section breaks thrown in. Not helpful when you’re looking for that natural place to put a book down for a session, or for picking that limit you’ll give yourself before deciding you can stop the pain.

I’ve been questioning whether I should continue with star ratings when I review a book, because the scales mean very different things to different people. If I were to use a rating here, I’d say 1 star. It wasn’t as bad as Her Majesty’s Royal Coven, but it was still pretty bad. If you’re local and really want to read it, keep an eye out in the local second-hand bookshop, because that’s where mine will end up. And possibly several others’ copies.

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