In a literary sense, at least, Eleanor Catton is adept at shedding her skin.
Each of her three novels to date has stood apart from the one preceding it, from the knots of power and desire that underpin the promise of her debut, The Rehearsal, to the astrologically-plotted Booker-winning The Luminaries written after the style of its 19th century setting, and now her current hardback, the contemporary satirical thriller Birnam Wood. Peripatetic herself across Anglophone nations from an early age – Catton recalls hazarding a Yorkshire accent after less than three weeks of a comprehensive school year in Leeds – she slips readily beneath the skin, too, making herself at home in the interior lives of others.
Shrugging off the drizzle that foreshadows the downpour still to come, after the book signing is over at Manchester’s Deansgate Waterstones her audience of the sensibly dressed and accessorised settle into their foldaway seats with varying degrees of grace, some performing cat-like sideways limbos to fold themselves around a prominent pillar, with one quietly taking book selfies to mark the occasion.
This evening’s interlocutor, Kate Feld, seems a particularly auspicious choice. Catton quickly reveals herself as a close and passionate reader, and Feld matches these qualities in her knowledgeable enthusiasm for Birnam Wood.
Having adapted Jane Austen’s matchless matchmaker Emma for the recent film in which Anya Taylor-Joy breathed new life into the titular Miss Woodhouse, Catton is a vociferous advocate for the understated genius of the novelist’s command of irony, arguably outstripping predecessor Shakespeare and follower Wilde both. Catton confesses: “I could talk about Emma all the time”. She singles out Austen’s coup in “cultivating in you the quality she’s going to satirise in the novel” as an important conceit in fermenting the cauldron that was to become Birnam Wood.
A further inspiration, acknowledged in the book’s title, was Macbeth. In Catton’s reading of the play, the hero’s tragedy lies in the main in his succumbing to “the quality of foresight”. Musing on this, she observes, “I became very suspicious of the idea of certainty, how seductive it is.”
Her misgivings were given further emphasis by the Manichean dramas unfolding beneath the proscenium archways of social media. “Everybody could agree that we were all hopelessly polarised, but everybody was blaming anyone but themselves.” Accordingly, she resolved that “I didn’t want this to be a book that flattered any point of view, particularly my own”.
The genre mechanics of the thriller, it seems, were both an initial challenge and an eventual delight.
“Getting ordinary people to start killing each other is hard,” she reflects, with an appropriately Austenian understatement. It sounds as though squaring that particular circle required reconciling the insight that “none of us really think they’re the villain of the story” with the equally persuasive observation that “you can really get behind a villain with a great plan”. As Catton confirms that her next novel is taking shape as a “first person unreliable psychological thriller”, it’s hard not to wonder whether the gestation necessary for Birnam Wood might not also have shaped its successor to some degree.
There’s a sense, perhaps, that in order to hold a mirror up to its times, art is required to sidestep its particular snares. Catton herself aphoristically sums this up, reflecting her belief that “the novel is the antidote to the pernicious landscapes of social media”. To shoplift a phrase well-worn from overuse in science fiction – a genre Catton has yet to try on for size – a good book is a device for reversing the polarity. Inspired by Shakespeare and Austen, but built on Catton’s own good sense and sensibility, Birnam Wood promises to be just such a book.
Main image of Ellie Catton by Murdo Macleod
Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton is available to buy now