From a Booker Prize winner’s new eco-thriller, to a brilliantly inventive work of prose poems by Melbourne-based writer Grace Yee. Here’s what our Balmain bookshop staff are reading this month.

April is reading…
A Booker Prize winner’s latest

Eleanor Catton is the New Zealand writer who seemed to come out of nowhere and win the 2013 Booker Prize for her second novel, The Luminaries – then seemed to disappear for nearly a decade.

Although I haven’t read her other books, I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about what her latest, Birnam Wood, would be like – although apparently all three are completely different to each other, which appeals to me as a reader.

Set near Christchurch, Birnam Wood is a guerrilla gardening group that grows food on private and public land, sometimes illegally. Of course, Birnam Wood is also the name of the forest in Shakespeare’s Scottish play, and the book’s characters often echo the play’s ambitious, venal and tragic characters, as they wrestle with principle and self-interest.

Birnam Wood features a rich and varied cast: Mira, the collective’s founder and her friend Shelley, prodigal former member Tony, who’s returned after years away, the Darvishes who own the farm where much of the action takes place, and the mysterious and dangerous IT billionaire Robert Lemoine.

Unlike The Luminaries, which was set during the New Zealand gold rush in 1866, Birnam Wood – billed as an ‘eco thriller’ – is a book of our times, ranging over surveillance capitalism, climate change, politics, corruption and the perils of the internet – amongst many other things. It’s almost like rambling through a wild garden of ideas and finding striking blooms of wit and excitement among all those thorny issues.

Like a newly planted garden, Birnam Wood takes a while to flower, but it’s worth persevering. Once you’ve met all the characters, and they’ve met each other, the fruits of their gripping and exciting narratives bear strange, bitter – but utterly delicious – fruit.

Kate is reading…
A thrillingly inventive prose poetry book

I love inventive literary endeavours. (Well, caveat, when they pay off.) There are so many other ways of telling a story over the linear conventional plot-driven novel, with sentences that run on one from one another inside neatly divided chapters. It’s thrilling and mind-expanding when you encounter other forms.

Grace Yee’s clever (and PhD informed) gambit with Chinese Fish is one of them*. A brilliant work of prose poems, it tells the story of a migrant Chinese family newly relocated to Aotearoa New Zealand, sometime in the 1970s. The typography is clever, playful (with even some original illustrations throughout), and often cutting – with extracts of old scholarly text (written in a paternal, and often discriminatory voice in its commentary on new Chinese settlers) intermingling with the events that befall our fictional family – in particular the overworked mother Ping, and her rebellious daughter Cherry. A rich interleaving of archival fragments and imagined lives, Chinese Fish is a brilliantly told tale on the pressures of assimilation, clashing cultural patriarchies, racism and resilience, and the distances and misunderstandings that can open up between migrant parents and their children.

It’s a book that reminds me of literature’s (under-explored) possibilities, and one I believe I will come to treasure on the shelf.

Next up: LORD SO MUCH TO READ. And so little time. For a start, I’m hoping to finish The Master and Margarita before Belvoir’s production of it later this year!

*Disclaimer: I do work for this book’s publisher Giramondo. But all these words are genuine!