By Matilda Cox
Now that climate change is finally seen as the crisis it truly is, Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness serves as a bleak but crucial warning of what humanity’s carelessness of the environment could cause. A suitable follow-up to her 2014 story collection Man V. Nature, Cook’s most recent 2020 release, The New Wilderness, published by Oneworld, goes further to examine a very believable dystopian reality where our disregard for sustainable expansion reduces nature to one remaining Wilderness.
A bleak but crucial warning of what humanity’s carelessness of the environment could cause.
Though an ecological horror story, The New Wilderness also offers a very heart-warming yet cruel insight into the mother-daughter relationship between Bea and Agnes. Bea and her partner Glen are two of the twenty first subjects to enter a radical experiment: leave the comforts of the City to live primitively in the last Wilderness State which remains untouched by human pollution. Much like many other children living in the City, Agnes is a “frail, failing little girl” slowly dying from the air pollution, and Bea must make the impossible decision to leave her life and mother behind to join the Community.
The book begins in the eyes of Bea, and startlingly opens with her giving birth to a stillborn alone in this unforgiving terrain. This sets the tone for such a darkly terrifying novel as it continues to follow the Community as they navigate this unforgiving land of forests and deserts with nothing but the belongings on their backs. Despite travelling through such a wild land, the Community must still live their lives according to the strict rules of the Manual and are subject to the sanctions of the Rangers if they fail to “leave no trace”.
Around half-way through the book, the focus shifts so we now see this world through the eyes of Agnes. Unlike her mother, who lived most of her life with all the comforts and luxuries of the City, Agnes was so young when they entered the experiment that she can barely remember their life before, and so only knows this nomadic life. Where, in the first half of the book we see Bea yearn for things like pillows and showers, Agnes can only see the Wilderness State as home. Because of this, the distance between mother and daughter continues to grow and their relationship fractures. Through Bea’s eyes, her daughter has become strange and wild, and Agnes fails to understand much of her mother’s behaviour and so often sees her as cold and cruel. Neither character is necessarily likeable or even wholly relatable at times, but all members of the Community are deeply interesting and dynamic, and alongside exploring this challenging mother-daughter relationship, Cook also delves into the politics and power dynamics of such a close-knit yet disjointed group. The compassion which certain individuals show throughout the novel is largely overshadowed by the inhumanity which often comes to light when dealing with ‘weaker’ members of the Community.
Cook seamlessly weaves a harsh and raw relationship between mother and daughter
Admittedly, I found the first part of The New Wilderness to be fairly slow, in spite of the frequently beautiful descriptions of the landscape, but once the focus shifted to the eyes of the peculiar and feral Agnes I really felt the pace quicken and I read the rest of the book within a few hours. I would certainly not describe The New Wilderness as an easy read; the overarching message about what our world could look like if we fail to protect it is a depressing but important wake-up call. As well as that, Cook seamlessly weaves in a harsh and raw relationship between mother and daughter over the span of twenty years. Overall, it was a darkly beautiful, if at times difficult, book which has rightfully earned a place on the Booker Prize longlist.
Image: Matilda Cox