The heaviness in her chest inched up to her throat. She guessed it had to do with being somewhere so familiar when such familiarity wasn’t supposed to exist anymore.
(p.232, The New Wilderness)
Bea has relinquished life in the overcrowded City, with its toxic air and ravaged resources, in order to give her daughter, Agnes, a fighting chance of survival. The Wilderness State is the only natural landscape left, and a study is being undertaken into whether a small number of humans can exist in the State without leaving any harmful trace or residue. Bea, her husband Glen (instigator of the study), and Agnes, are part of a collective who must continually move across the land, never staying too long in any one place. Rules forbid permanent structures, and the group must follow orders given by the Rangers, or suffer the consequences. Members of the group fall to the environment, and mourning becomes a weakness in this harsh new existence. Agnes, however, begins to see herself as part of the land, adapting to this nomadic lifestyle and moment to moment existence. When Bea’s mother dies, she abandons Agnes, Glen, and the remaining group members, acting on her uncertainty about this life she has chosen. When she returns, some seasons later, Agnes struggles with her emotions regarding her mother’s behaviour, resulting in torn alliances. As more people begin to appear in the Wilderness State, the group segments, as the experimenters decide to once again change the rules.
Diane Cook excels in creating a world to be lost within from the very beginning of the novel, where we meet Bea, lamenting a loss, digging into the earth and connecting to the wild animals, all after an improved slice of life. Snippets of a past life are divulged through Bea and Agnes’ memories as they traverse the land, learning to deal with struggle and loss, alongside becoming more attuned to a wilder way of living, whilst seeking to understand the changes in relationships and identities that run alongside such a shift in perspective and lifestyle. A mixture of voices in the novel helps to unravel the difficulties the group have, attempting to gel together as a community. The story begins with Bea, and as the role between mother and daughter also changes, gently shifts to Agnes perspective, as she seizes her own place within the community.
What this novel really draws out, is the human drive towards self-preservation. Although the community tries to work together, in the end, apart from perhaps the gentle-natured Glen, and possibly Bea – although this is never quite answered – most of the community are out for themselves. Bea can be a paradox, taking steps to control the group, running from her predicament, and then returning having once departed. Written in the third person, we do not fully know Bea’s motives for her actions, maybe the City proved too inhospitable on her return there, or maybe her love for her family brought her back, but the year in between departure and arrival cause Agnes to question her mothers love. Bea also has a secret story about her whisperings with Ranger Bob, a quest to result in a safe haven for her and Agnes, in the ‘Private Lands’, a place thought not to truly exist.
Thoroughly captivating throughout, the story has you walking the wilderness with the characters, aware of the sense of depth and scope of the landscape and the relationships within it. The book is beautiful in its detail, a credit to an author who has built a truly believable world, one which teeters on the edge of current realities, regarding humans treatment of the planet – a constant plundering of resources and desire for impossible never-ending growth.
A gripping tale of instinct versus responsibility, set in a world we consider dystopian, yet may frighteningly also be just around the corner.
About Diane Cook
The New Wilderness (2020), shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, is Diane Cook’s first novel, arriving five years after her acclaimed short story collection Man v Nature (2015), which was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, the Believer Book Award and the L.A Times Book Prize.
Cook studied fiction at Columbia University, where she has also taught writing and literature, and attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, moving into radio at first as an intern, and progressing to producer at This American Life. Recipient of a 2016 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Cook’s work has been featured in Harper’s, Tin House, Granta, and in anthologies for Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories.
Cook was the recipient of a 2016 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and was recently the Leeds Lit Fest 2020 International Writer in Residence.
Cook has also been actively involved with the University of Michigan’s New England Literature Program – where students and teachers (of which Cook was one) live as a community in a rustic camp, foregoing all technology and traditional classroom methods, experiences which have likely added to the depth and believability of her writings on nature and human footsteps on the planet.
Cook currently lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children.