Title: The New Wilderness
Author: Diane Cook
Genre: Science Fiction
What she wouldn’t have given for her mother.
Agnes is slowly wasting away in the smog and pollution of the City. Her lungs are giving up, and in order to save her, her mother Bea accepts a chance to enter the Wilderness State, the last swath of protected land away from the City. A group of twenty people will live there as hunter gatherers, in a last attempt to prove that men can live with nature without destroying it.
But while Agnes gets better and becomes a wild child, Bea longs for the comforts of the City and their previous life. Living in the Wilderness State is hard, the Rangers seem to have fun pushing them around and making sure they don’t stay too long in any given place, and still expect them to fill out their paperwork diligently and without complaint.
When the Administration changes, though, a feeling of uncertainty enters the group. Will they be allowed to stay, or forced to leave?
A closer look
This book was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, and at this point I’m starting to think they must have a thing for mother-daughter relationships this year. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
We open the book with the protagonist, Bea, having a miscarriage. This is literally the first scene, and it sets the tone for the rest of the book. The Wilderness is dangerous, anything could kill you, and you have no support except for the people closest to you.
At this point, the group has been living in the Wilderness State for four years. It takes a while to understand the implications of it, really: the City is named only in passing, the reason for them being there is not discussed, and we get information only as we watch the group in those first scenes of the book. We understand that they are not allowed to keep any kind of comfort item from the City, as it would just make travel difficult; we see that they have no technology to speak of; we know that they are a nomadic group, because they’re picking up their stuff and all of the micro-trash they have created in an attempt to restore the land to its original, untouched condition, before moving to a new place.
While they don’t have a proper hierarchy, that’s mostly a facade for a more complex structure; it feels like some kind of democracy, where attempts to impose one’s authority are treated as simple annoyances and mostly not taken into consideration openly. Still, Carl’s opinions always have more weight than most due to his aptitude to their wild life, despite Glen – Bea’s husband – being the man behind the whole project and with more theoretical experience.
The group has an obligation to reach one of the Posts – Rangers’ outposts set in different locations at the borders of the Wilderness State – at regular intervals to carry their trash, fill their paperwork, and get their mail. They have developed a preferred route to do this, but it all crumbles when they are forced by the Rangers to go in a different direction in order to occupy a different area of the State and allow this one to fully recuperate. The new Post they are directed to is far from their usual route, across unknown lands, and they’re given only flimsy explanations for this sudden change.
They grudgingly agree anyway, and so starts one of the longest marches they’ve ever attempted, through almost deserted lands. There’s a feeling that something must be wrong, even as they act as if everything is normal, but as the novel goes on that feeling only intensifies. I won’t get into too much detail: there’s not a whole lot of plot, and I don’t want to spoil those few things that actually happen.
The first part of the novel is told in Bea’s perspective, and we get a view of their situation that resembles what any of us would feel in her place: the people are dirty, tired, and at times they have been close to starving. She feels like it’s a step back from her previous life, a life where she had been an interior designer and lived in an apartment building that had the luxury to be situated near one of the few trees left in the City. And as she watches her daughter, now healthy and strong but wild and growing farther and farther away from her, warring feelings stir inside her: relief, for she has saved her, and at the same time some kind of hatred for being forced to live like this because of her. This is not the life she wanted.
We then switch to follow Agnes’s perspective, which is… jarring, to say the least. She is only a child, and she doesn’t have many memories of her life before the Wilderness. The whole situation, their way of life, everything seems normal to her, and even though at times the reader understands that something is going on, she is oblivious to it. She doesn’t get the subtlety – or what passes for it – of the adults interactions and choices; she struggles to make sense of her mother’s actions, and her weird kind of affection. Her hugs feels like a declaration of possession, and if there’s something Agnes has learned in the Wilderness, is that she’d rather be free. Even when that means longing for affection from time to time.
The most interesting part of the book is following the group dynamics. There are those people who believe they should be in charge, and try to manipulate the others into agreeing with them on everything; there are those who are content to stay on the margins; and then there is Bea, who doesn’t like to be told what to do and will try to even the scales at every opportunity.
Another very important topic is the relationship between Bea and Agnes. They clearly love each other to some extent, but can’t find a way to express it. Every attempt at getting closer only results in one of them stepping back, over and over and over again. Even in the instances where they realise this dynamic, they are somehow unable to break free from it.
Reading this book was a weird experience. Most of it is just people walking around, stopping from time to time to hunt or eat or sleep, but every time I picked it up I found myself unable to put it down. It’s a story about a mother and her daughter; about the way some people will always try to prevail over others; about how, even after millennia of evolution, human nature is still animalistic to some extent. And I find that weirdly fascinating, but also sad.
I wish their efforts at survival would have been explored a bit more. For example, we never really follow a hunt, but only watch people going and coming back with a prize; we are told they tan the skins of their prey and sew clothes out of them, but we never really see anyone doing that. We are only told in passing. I understand that it’s not the point of the novel, but given the fact that most of the story is just them moving from place to place and talking to each other – and since surviving is supposedly the only thing they do, and they used to struggle a lot to do it – I think it would have been interesting to have a bit more of that instead of the next group discussion.
None of the characters – well, maybe one of them, and he doesn’t meet a kind fate – is likeable. They are all mean or selfish in their own way, and even when it’s kind of justifiable, it’s still hard to read at times.
Also, the environmental takes of the novel are a bit on the nose, and a bit unrealistic. Supposedly the City (only called “the City”, really?) has somehow expanded over the whole world and taken over nature everywhere except in the Wilderness, and it is repeated over and over again how bad the air is, and how often children get sick and die, and all that kind of stuff. Like, okay, we need to take care of nature, we get it.
If you like to read about group dynamics, mother-daughter struggles, and surviving in the wild (but without too much effort), this book might be for you. But if you need a solid plot or endearing characters in order to enjoy a book, I would recommend steering clear of this one.