Authors Maeve Brennan, Eleanor Catton and Kevin Jared Hosein

Pains and pleasures of anticipation

The best sort of debut isn’t actually the author’s first book

This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The performance anxiety for a big literary prize winner — the “follow that!” factor — must be greater still if you are a record holder like Eleanor Catton, who was just 28 when she became the youngest ever winner of the Booker Prize with The Luminaries. Why her new novel, Birnam Wood, took a decade to write (in the acknowledgements she thanks her “very patient agent”) we cannot say, but struggles in composition are suggested by the fault lines that run through it.

Birnam Wood, Eleanor Catton (Granta, £20)

As the Macbeth-sourced title suggests, the novel is about a “wood that moves” — Birnam Wood, an ecological campaign group in modern New Zealand that plants crops on other people’s land to promote self-sufficiency. Heading the group is Mira Bunting and her friend Shelley. As the book opens they are excited by the opportunities for some guerrilla gardening, presented by a landslide which has cut off a local farm owned by pest control magnate Sir Owen Darvish.

Equally excited is “serial entrepreneur venture capitalist former CEO company director billionaire” — or “libertarian survivalist”, as he styles himself — Robert Lemoine, who spies the chance to take over the land to mine some rare earth elements. He should know about such things, as it was his mining activities that caused the landslide and killed five people.

Lemoine is a sort of comic-book super-villain, effortlessly hacking people’s phones, tracking his quarry with drones, and booking two luxury hotels every night so he can switch between them to frustrate assassination attempts. (He’s also American, a nice antipodean take on Hollywood’s preference for a Russian or English holder of such roles.)

The Lemoine factor is the first indication we get that Birnam Wood is not going to be a straight literary novel: it’s half-thriller, and shows its qualities most effectively in scenes of action and punchy dialogue, whether between sinister Lemoine and suspicious-but-tempted Mira, or among the combative members of the “horizontally”-organised Birnam Wood. (There’s some nice comedy as they tie themselves in knots wondering whether polyamory is capitalist, and whether it’s respectful or cultural appropriation to rename their collective with a Maori term.)

Still there’s a lot of backstory to get through, and the story only really gets going after the first 70 pages. It picks up when Lemoine decides to invest in Birnam Wood, setting the scene for lots of moral anguish by Mira, Shelley and their colleague Tony, as well as some big plot turns. Lemoine convinces Mira that he’s buying the Darvish land for “doomsteading” purposes — that is, the (genuine) tendency by the more rapacious brand of billionaire to plan a post-collapse life in a bespoke New Zealand biosphere. Tension ensues as Mira is pulled between hopes and fears, and the conclusion is appropriately Shakespearean, if somewhat abrupt.

Even whilst the pages turned smoothly, however, I felt I could see the joins too often, particularly with Catton’s tendency to introduce a new plot element and detonate it a few pages later. (Acid, gate code, drums of poison.) The novel shuttles too much between story and explication, which is a shame because the story is engaging; though genuine mystery is limited by giving every character, including the dastardly Lemoine, a place in the narrative spotlight. The overall feel is schematic, mechanical, a book with the design imposed on it rather than developed from within its own elements. Catton remains an interesting writer and is still, after all, in the early stages of her career, but I don’t expect Birnam Wood to repeat The Luminaries success.

Hungry Ghosts, Kevin Jared Hosein (Bloomsbury, £16.99)

The wait for Kevin Jared Hosein’s novel Hungry Ghosts has not been quite as long, but I did first hear about the book a couple of years ago, so I approached it with a mixture of anticipation and fear that the anticipation would capsize the reading. I needn’t have worried. Hungry Ghosts is the best sort of debut: one that isn’t actually the author’s first book. (Hosein has published two books for young adults before, but this is his first, as it were, grown-up novel.)

The story drops us in 1940s Trinidad, a malleable time when British rule is lightening, but American troops are stationed on the island. Both those elements are largely off-stage, but they provide the context for an uncertain period when anything can happen.

Most of the book switches between the two sides of rural Trinidad. First there is Marlee, the semi-aristocratic wife of Dalton Changoor, a farm overseer and therefore one of Trinidad’s elite. As the book opens, her husband has gone missing, and soon ransom notes begin to appear. This opens a dilemma for Marlee, who “once tried to love him but ended up loving only what he owned”. Will she cooperate with the kidnappers, or the authorities — or neither?

Meanwhile in the valley below the farm, the poor workers live in “barracks”, long buildings where families share a room. Amongst them are Hans and Shweta Saroop and their son Krishna. Krishna is a typical mischievous kid, getting into scrapes with enemies (dogshit in shoes, scorpions in the latrine), whilst his father wants to improve the family’s station in life. Opportunity knocks when Marlee asks him to stay in her house whilst Dalton is missing.

The scene is laid for a rich tale of ambition, compassion, cruelty and (trigger warning?) violence to dogs. Everyone in the story has a history — a recurring refrain is a variation on The Tempest’s “what’s past is prologue” — but the book does not crowbar in great wodges of backstory (see Catton, Eleanor). Instead, there is lightness of touch and a just-enough approach.

Chief among the delights of Hungry Ghosts is Hosein’s willingness to leave things out. The reader comes away from the book feeling that there was a hell of a lot in there for such a short novel. (In fact, it’s 320 pages long, but just as the prevalence of obesity has skewed our perceptions of weight, so too does word-bloat in modern fiction make us think that 320 pages is a model of restraint.)

Off the page is not just Dalton Changoor, but many of the lives of the secondary characters, whose tendencies are hinted at, seen in passing just as they would be in real life. It’s nice to find an author who trusts the reader enough not to bombard them with details, leaving something to the imagination. It’s true that I regretted some of these decisions — Marlee disappears for most of the book’s second half, which is a shame as she’s the character I most enjoyed spending time with — but you can’t have everything, as Marlee herself finds out.

The Springs of Affection, Maeve Brennan (Peninsula Press, £10.99)

Maeve Brennan’s The Springs of Affection is a curiosity: a modern classic that was never published in the author’s lifetime, but compiled after her death in 1993. It then slipped out of print, and it is reissued now with far less fanfare than there should be.

That theme of disappearance is apt enough for Brennan, who moved from Ireland to America as a teenager in 1934 before joining the New Yorker as a staff writer. She wrote fiction and essays there, but later in life she had repeated admissions to mental hospitals. Her colleague William Maxwell described how she “moved in and out of reality in a way that was heartbreaking to watch”. When she died, none of her work was in print. Now it is back, and we should be glad.

The Springs of Affection compiles Brennan’s Dublin-based stories, in three sets. First come the autobiographical sketches, which are worthwhile but ultimately prelude. It is the other two groups of stories — about Rose and Hubert Derdon, and about Min Bagot and her family — that mark out Brennan as one of the great short story writers of the last century.

The best of the best are the Derdon stories, which cover Rose’s life from childhood to death. With these and the Min Bagot stories, what we really get is two novels in broken pieces: extra value.

Brennan’s eye is unswerving in its attention to Rose’s tragedy in a minor key, especially regarding the men in her life: the death of her father as a child; her struggle with her own son leaving to join the priesthood, not recognising that it was her smothering attention that drove him away.

As a result of Rose’s unhappiness, she and husband Hubert work away at one another like knives, making themselves unhappier still. It’s bracing stuff. When Rose dies, the final story describing Hubert’s time after her shows Brennan hasn’t finished yet with the Derdons — or with our emotions. Hubert finds endless bric-a-brac he never knew his wife had hoarded: recipes uncooked, dress patterns unmade, evidence that she “wast[ed] nothing except her time and her life and his time and his life”.

When Hubert’s sister comes to stay, he is unable to express his complicated grief. The Derdon stories close with further absence: “He could not speak to her to tell her that it was all only a masquerade and that he was only a sham of a man, and after a long time, when he finally got command of himself, it no longer seemed worthwhile to tell her, and the way it worked out he never told her, and never told anybody.” Except us.

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