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Birnam Wood: Summary and Ending Explained

birnam wood summary and ending explained

Birnam Wood, written by New Zealand author and screenwriter Eleanor Catton in 2023, is her third novel. Catton gained recognition at the age of 28 for her second book, The Luminaries, which won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2013 with its 832 pages.

The story unfolds near a made-up national park on New Zealand’s South Island, where a young activist group, named after the forest in Macbeth, strikes a deal with an American tech mogul. This mogul claims to have bought the land they intend to guerrilla garden on and surprises them by offering financial support.

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton

The narrative shifts perspectives, exposing each character’s hidden and deceitful motives. As betrayals and revelations pile up, the plot hurtles toward an apocalyptic and fiery climax.

Summary | Ending Explained

Birnam Wood Summary

Mira Bunting, the 29-year-old founder of the guerrilla gardening group Birnam Wood, discovers an ideal piece of land near Thorndike, close to the Korowai National Park. The town is cut off due to a landslide, and the property owner, Owen Darvish, is away with his wife, Jill, receiving recognition for conservation efforts.

Shelley Noakes, Mira’s roommate, best friend, and Birnam Wood partner, feels overshadowed by Mira and believes the organization may fail because she handles all the practical work. Tony Gallo, Mira’s former love interest and group member, seeks Mira out, prompting Shelley to decide to sever ties by sleeping with Tony. Despite Tony’s attempts to reconnect with Mira, Shelley reveals Mira’s alleged drunken state during a one-night stand.

Mira explores the potential Thorndike site alone and discovers a surprising landing strip and plane. A man with an American accent, revealed as Robert Lemoine, the CEO of an American drone company called Autonomo, confronts her. After confessing her plans, Mira receives the gate code and assurance from Lemoine that he won’t inform the Darvishes.

Lemoine takes things further by hacking into Mira’s phone, checking her search history, and tracking her movements using a drone. He finds excitement in their shared illegal activities—Mira trespassing on private property, while he secretly extracts rare-earth minerals in the national park. He remains untroubled by the landslide and deaths caused by his actions. Lemoine plans to mine the Darvishes’ land, having already purchased a portion, under the guise of building a doomsday bunker. Surprisingly, he decides to financially support Mira’s activities.

Three weeks later, Shelley organizes a Birnam Wood meeting. Unaware of Tony’s return, she hasn’t shared her unsuccessful encounter with him. Mira, surprised to see Tony, reveals Lemoine’s $100,000 offer. A heated debate ensues between Tony and Mira regarding the group’s principles. Shelley supports Mira, leading to a vote in favor of accepting Lemoine’s money, prompting Tony to leave feeling humiliated. As Owen Darvish is knighted, Shelley and Mira prepare to depart.

Sir Owen and Lady Jill, now having sold their land, share dinner with friends. Jill discloses the sale but remains bound by a nondisclosure agreement. Owen discovers an email from Anthony Gallo, inquiring about the land sale to Lemoine. Panicking, he wonders who Gallo is and how he’s aware of the situation.

Meanwhile, Tony plans to write an article about wealthy individuals purchasing land in New Zealand. Despite considering infiltrating Thorndike under the guise of helping with guerrilla gardening, he decides against deceiving former friends. While surveilling the national park, Tony encounters a restricted research area and a security-guarded cell trailer, leading to panic and confusion.

Returning to the sheep farm, he witnesses Lemoine and Mira in conversation, perplexed by the lack of sale information. Tony emails the Darvishes for an interview, and to his surprise, Owen calls back, expressing astonishment at work being done behind his farm. Tony hangs up, leaves a message for Rosie, and informs her that he’ll be out of service.

Feeling guilty about not disclosing the true ownership of the land, Mira grapples with her attraction to Lemoine, whom she suspects may be a “psychopath.” Spotting someone who looks like Tony walking into the trees, she remains conflicted.

Lady Darvish dismisses concerns about Tony, but Sir Darvish, feeling unsettled, decides to book a flight to investigate. Lemoine recalls Lady Darvish’s intervention when he was on the verge of losing the deal with Darvish, realizing she went behind her husband’s back. He reflects on a dark thought, admitting he would have killed her if she were his own wife—his wife died in a helicopter accident.

Meanwhile, Lemoine’s workers report a security breach at the illegal extraction site. Unable to access Tony’s phone, Lemoine calls Rosie, posing as someone from Tony’s workplace, but hangs up when suspicion arises. Tony notices a drone scanning the forest, triggering memories of past protests against mining in national parks, making him wonder if the government is involved.

Frustrated that she feels burdened with all the work, Shelley is upset by Mira’s infatuation with Lemoine. Lemoine, wanting to meet the group, brings dinner and drugs. An argument ensues between Mira and Lemoine, with Lemoine exploiting the emotional impact of his wife’s death to manipulate Mira. Dinner becomes awkward as Shelley flirts with Lemoine and confronts Mira for not participating in the drug use.

Lemoine, opting out of the drugs, faces increased aggression from Shelley, who publicly asks if he wants to sleep with Mira. As the drugs take effect, Mira and Lemoine leave for the Darvishes’ house, only to find a car at the gate. They hear a van passing by, resulting in a crash. Shelley, under the influence of acid, has inadvertently killed Owen Darvish.

Worried about Owen’s absence from a Birnam Wood meeting on the farm, Lady Darvish becomes concerned when Lemoine calls, claiming Owen hasn’t shown up. Jill tracks Owen’s phone, and Lemoine, after checking the spot, calls back with the devastating news that Owen is dead.

To manipulate the situation, Lemoine emotionally blackmails Mira into helping and convinces Shelley that the situation is not real. He alters Darvish’s phone, erasing evidence of his recent visit, and fabricates emails arranging the Birnam Wood meeting from days before. Shelley later demands $1 million from Lemoine.

Realizing Shelley is the key negotiator, Lemoine focuses on dealing with her. Lady Darvish, skeptical about her husband’s accidental death, investigates further. Lemoine’s security captures footage of someone taking pictures of his extraction site—Tony.

Blocked by black SUVs, Tony escapes, safeguarding his film, but sustains injuries after jumping off a cliff into a river. Mira and Shelley return to the farm, encountering a man with an assault rifle. Lemoine claims he’s protecting against a threat to his life and instructs all official matters to go through Shelley. Mira resigns as Birnam Wood’s CEO, and Lemoine asks Shelley to spend the night.

Mira encounters delirious Tony, who reveals crucial information. Determined to help, Mira witnesses construction beginning on the bunker. Lemoine’s sinister plan involves framing Tony for the demise of everyone in Birnam Wood while he escapes with hidden minerals in construction equipment.

Mira retrieves Tony at night, but Lemoine’s drones track them. Lemoine intercepts them, confiscating Tony’s film. Shelley, unaware of Mira’s nighttime activities, sees Lemoine with Mira in the car. Later, realizing Mira is missing, she learns from Lemoine that he’ll meet the entire group in the morning.

Concerned, Lady Darvish heads to Thorndike and discovers signs of a struggle in her home. Hearing a scream, she grabs a rifle, finding multiple dead bodies and Tony tied to a deceased Mira. Realizing Lemoine’s true villainy, Lady Darvish shoots him between the eyes. She frees Tony but is shot by Lemoine’s bodyguard. Tony, using his last strength, locates the mine site and sets it ablaze to ensure its discovery.

Birnam Wood Ending Explained

In the final pages of Part 3, the narrative accelerates towards its climax, brimming with action. The earlier foreshadowing expertly laid out by Catton unfolds, culminating in a tense moment when Jill Darvish seizes the .22 rifle from the display case.

Shelley’s ambition peaks as she takes charge of the paperwork. Her initial attempt at interfering with Mira’s love interest fails, but she succeeds on her second try with Lemoine, sidelining Mira and exposing her true ambition. Leading Birnam Wood is not Shelley’s true desire; she craves to surpass Mira.

Despite her pivotal role in Darvish’s death, Shelley shows no remorse or acknowledgment, overlooking Mira’s meaningful stare as their cars pass. This dramatic irony raises tension, as readers understand Mira’s silent communication while Shelley remains oblivious. Having achieved her greatest ambition, Shelley fades from the narrative, consumed by the malevolence explored in Catton’s novel.

Mira’s ambition seems subdued during this portion of the story, but Catton intricately weaves her character development to contribute to the novel’s climax. Mira’s turning point emerges when she decides to betray others, realizing she has a scapegoat in Shelley.

In her attempt to escape, Mira betrays everyone at Birnam Wood, sacrificing her self-mythologized identity, her most cherished possession. A prior conversation reveals Mira’s belief that deep apologies are unnecessary, aligning with her renewed ambition that leads to her demise. Ignoring Tony’s instructions in her excitement, she allows the drones to trace her escape, sealing her tragic fate.

Despite Lemoine’s prior straightforwardness with Mira, Catton begins telling lies about his work being for governments. Ironically, they don’t believe him; he’s more successful when he admits to having an evil plan. This deviation initiates Lemoine’s downfall, as his evil only works when in plain sight.

Catton builds tension by showing that his plans could have been stopped earlier, signaling that he is losing control and deviating from his typical characterization. This results in him being present and vulnerable, unlike his usual preference for distance.

While characters heavily rely on gadgets throughout most of the book, what prevails here are low-tech objects and physical human activity. The final blow to Lemoine comes from an old .22 rifle, emphasizing the contrast with modern technology. Lady Darvish doesn’t use tracking devices or surveillance; she physically investigates.

Characters who rely on physical action without technology find the most damning information throughout the book. Physical movement, like Tony winding film, intimidates Lemoine more than a man on a drone’s video feed. Catton portrays human activity and physical reality as an antidote to the dangers of technology.

The final scene is apocalyptic, reminiscent of the battle scene in Macbeth. True to Catton’s concept of connecting all characters to the ambitious Macbeth and his fatal ending, Tony, Mira, Shelley, the Darvishes, and even Lemoine betray someone or themselves multiple times.

The remaining Birnam Wood workers are also implicated, having not questioned the situation despite realizing the significant money involved. Every character who dies is led there by their ambitions. The lone survivor is the guard, loyal to Lemoine and betraying no one throughout the book, making him the only person left at the fiery end.

Happy reading! ❤️