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Eleanor Catton on ‘Birnam Wood’

The Book Review

28-04-2023 • 33 mins

Eleanor Catton’s new novel, “Birnam Wood,” is a rollicking eco-thriller that juggles a lot of heady themes with a big plot and a heedless sense of play — no surprise, really, from a writer who won Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize for her previous novel, “The Luminaries,” and promptly established herself as a leading light in New Zealand’s literary community.

On this week’s podcast, Catton tells the host Gilbert Cruz how that early success affected her writing life (not much) as well as her life outside of writing (her marriage made local headlines, for one thing). She also discusses her aims for the new book and grapples with the slippery nature of New Zealand’s national identity.

“You very often hear New Zealanders defining their country in the negative rather than in the positive,” she says. “If you ask somebody about New Zealand culture, they’ll begin by describing something overseas and then they’ll just say, Oh, well, we’re just not like that. … I think that that’s solidified over time into this kind of very odd sense of supremacy, actually. It’s born out of an inferiority complex, but like many inferiority complexes, it manifests as a superiority complex.”

A word of warning, for listeners who care about plot spoilers: Toward the end of their conversation, Catton and Cruz talk about the novel’s climactic scene and some of the questions it raises. So if you’re a reader who prefers to be taken by surprise, you may want to finish “Birnam Wood” before you finish this episode.

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