Being the youngest person to win the Booker Prize comes with an inevitable downside: How do you top that? For Eleanor Catton, who was 28 when she achieved that milestone with her second novel, The Luminaries, in 2013, the fear was less that she’d produce something inferior and more that wunderkind status might shield her from hard truths. “I was anxious,” she says, “that people wouldn’t tell me if my next book was no good!”

She needn’t have worried. Her new novel, Birnam Wood (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 7), is already winning genuine raves—in a starred review, Kirkus calls it a “blistering look at the horrors of late capitalism [that] manages to also be a wildly fun read.” Set in the author’s native New Zealand, the novel tells the story of a guerilla gardening group called Birnam Wood that plants crops on unused land, only sometimes with permission, and donates harvests to the local population. When their idealistic young founder, Mira Bunting, hears about acres of fertile ground cut off from the world by a recent earthquake and landslide in the country’s South Island, their mission looks about to get supercharged. Doomsteader Robert Lemoine, an American billionaire who’s just bought the property, offers them $100,000 to farm it while he builds an eco-disaster bolt-hole for himself underground. He gets do-gooding cred toward the citizenship he needs; they get legitimacy and profitability. A win-win! Except, of course, things are far more complicated than they look, and explosive consequences loom.

The idea for the novel “came out of the political upheavals in 2016. Donald Trump, the Brexit vote,” explains Catton, speaking via Zoom from her home in Cambridge, England. “The collective shame that seemed to be in the air, the new terror about the unknowability of the future. If you said something like, ‘50 years from now, x, y or z,’ there was certain to be somebody in the room who’d say, ‘If the world is even around.’ There seemed to be this new certainty that the end was rushing toward us.”

So she decided to reread Shakespeare’s Macbeth. “The play is so much about prophecy. Witches tell Macbeth that he will be king, that he’s safe until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane.…When you give somebody a sense of certainty about the future, they kind of end up occasioning that future,” she says. “I started thinking, maybe there’s a novel where each character would have an ambition and be driving toward the future, seduced by this promise of certainty the way Macbeth was.”

Birnam Wood’s Mira, for instance, can almost touch the greener, more equitable world she’s building. Lemoine has his eye on his own safety and prosperity, while a disaffected activist named Tony smells a rat where Lemoine is concerned—and foresees personal glory once he uncovers the truth and writes about it. “I wanted the reader going in thinking one person was wrong and everyone else was blameless,” Catton says, “but slowly the complicity of the characters dawns on you. No one thinks they’re the bad guy, and that’s like the political spectrum today. There’s a lot of diagnosing Macbeth-like qualities in others and not in ourselves.”

She would be happy if Birnam Wood “provokes a conversation,” she says, about climate change and land stewardship, inequality, the threats of technology. But she didn’t set out to write a manifesto: “I feel strongly that one should not confuse art and activism.” Instead, she hitched her ideas to an irresistibly propulsive plot. “I wanted to create the kind of desire to know what happens next that animates a thriller.”

And if the book’s action isn’t enough to hook you, the nuanced characters certainly will. Influenced by Jane Austen—Catton adapted Emma for the screen in 2020—the novel goes deep into the friendship between Mira and her skeptical second-in-command, Shelley Noakes. “Mira and Shelley have a great rapport,” Catton says, “but I wanted them to betray each other. Often a story is saddest when two people could have been really good for each other.”

At home in Cambridge, where Catton lives with husband Steven Toussaint, a fellow writer, and their young daughter, there’s often debate about characters that the novelists in residence are creating. “It was especially fun with this book because it’s so character driven,” Catton says. “We’d argue constantly about whether someone would do this or that—they were like our friends. My husband would have an idea and I would get so cross at him! There were a lot of tearful arguments as well as happy conversations.”

One thing the couple doesn’t need to argue about: what to watch on Netflix. “Thrillers,” Catton says. “It’s the one film genre we can always agree on.” And one she wants to stick with in her writing as well. She’s already at work on her next novel, “a more psychological, paranoia-driven thriller with an unreliable narrator,” as she describes it. “When it’s done well,” she says, “a thriller can appeal to the head and the heart.”

Kim Hubbard, former books editor for People, is a freelance writer and editor.