The New Wilderness by Diane Cook review – a dazzling debut

A community of strangers attempt to live in a natural world made inhospitable by the climate crisis in this tale of survival and strife

In The New Wilderness, Diane Cook’s Booker prize-longlisted debut novel, the end isn’t so much “nigh” as “come and gone”. The cataclysm of civilisation has overwhelmed all but a single natural preserve called the Wilderness State, home to the last remnants of North American wildlife, and a small band of nomads called the Community. We venture into this inhospitable world in the varyingly close and distant third-person company of Bea, a young mother who has made the impossible and inadvisable decision to join an experiment in the Wilderness State in order to save her little daughter, Agnes, from the wasted City, whose poisoned air has been killing her since the day she was born. One of 20 initial volunteers, Bea is part of an experiment allegedly intended to determine whether humans can exist in nature without destroying it. The Community, of which she is a reluctant and pragmatically sceptical member, is tethered to meaning by a set of precious implements – the Cast Iron, the Book Bag, and most importantly the Manual that spells out the rules of their existence, over which the Rangers, to whose whims the experiment and its participants are subject, hold sway.

Bea’s fellow Community members are not the scientists and experts her well-meaning partner Glen envisioned volunteering for the experiment when he first founded it; they come, instead, from walks of life incompatible with survival in the Wilderness State, and their missteps are often costly and harrowing. As one might expect of ordinary souls thrown into extraordinary strife, the Community’s politicking grows ever more self-serving and craven, and – as their existence is challenged by Newcomers and the unravelling of the structures they were told to believe in – their respective motivations veer further and further from a shared objective.

Cook remains as dubious of our species’ trajectory as she was in her rich and original short story collection, Man V. Nature. One of her most compelling concerns in The New Wilderness is the corrosive force of individualism, and how pedestrian the human tendency to destroy really is – how the hardwired urge to self-preserve erodes the possibility of fellowship and forward thinking. Above all, she seems to ask: how will we regard one another once the climate crisis finally becomes the uncontested crucible of our time? She explores this question through Bea and Agnes’s turbulent relationship, passing the narrative torch from mother to daughter about halfway through the book. We are aligned first with Bea, who grew up and sometimes still longs for the polluted City; and then with Agnes, a true nomad, for whom the Wilderness State has always been home. The unease between mother and daughter as they navigate disparate understandings of self, belonging, society and each other is the beating heart of the novel.

There’s a lot of landscape in The New Wilderness, and Cook’s prose is at its finest when she trains her eye on the natural world. The harsh, dazzling setting seems to be one of the few things to which the characters react with much awe or emotion – but for me, their ambivalence toward so many other aspects of life comes at a cost. Cook’s desired intention, I believe, must be to highlight the mutedness with which her characters have come to experience events that would horrify most 21st-century readers: a fatal mauling, a fall down an abyss, even the tragic stillbirth of a child whose personhood is heartbreakingly discounted by a Ranger in one of the novel’s most poignant scenes. But to numb the narrative consciousness to these events, the text must numb the reader, too.

This is achieved by destabilising our sense of time, pulling the perspective back, and blurring details that would have given us a more precise sense of Bea, Agnes, and the world around them. Characters united by little else are united in their ambivalence. They see each other in vague and general terms. They seem to have little understanding of one another as actual people with pasts and vulnerabilities. The objective here may be to show us how people living with the expectation of death don’t put much stock in each other’s individuality; but its unintended effect is to distance the reader. I often found myself wondering how people thrown into this kind of experiment – into a radical reshaping of mind, body, and sense of both society and time – could stay such strangers for so long.

Still, I am confident that this distancing effect will not trouble every reader. Cook takes command of a fast-paced, thrilling story to ask stomach-turning questions in a moment when it would benefit every soul to have their stomach turned by the prospect of the future she envisions. I, for one, was grateful for the journey.

The New Wilderness is published by Oneworld (£16.99). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply.

Téa Obreht

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley review – a dazzling Dickensian tale
Can solidarity among the marginalised bring about social change? A novel set amid the brothels of Soho explores the answer

Lara Feigel

10, Mar, 2021 @7:30 AM

Article image
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi review – electrifyingly truthful
When does self-determination become selfishness? This intelligent Booker-shortlisted debut examines the legacy of a toxic mother

Shahidha Bari

26, Sep, 2020 @6:30 AM

Article image
Actress by Anne Enright review – the spotlight of fame
The Booker winner’s seventh novel investigates a woman’s memories of her starry, damaged mother

Alexandra Harris

14, Feb, 2020 @7:30 AM

Article image
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James review – violent and cliched
The Man Booker winner calls his fantasy trilogy an ‘African Game of Thrones’. The gore is there, but where’s the subtlety?

Sukhdev Sandhu

22, Feb, 2019 @7:30 AM

Article image
Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze review – the double life of a London gangster
The tension between the author’s ultraviolent life on the streets and his university studies are at the heart of this autofictional Booker-longlisted debut

Matt Rowland Hill

29, Aug, 2020 @6:30 AM

Article image
How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division by Elif Shafak review – a poignant look back at another age
What has happened to the belief that social media can create a new and better world?

Mary Beard

21, Aug, 2020 @6:30 AM

Article image
Dream Sequence by Adam Foulds review – precision of observation
This story of an ambitious actor and his obsessed fan is brilliantly written, but lacks contemporary resonance

Edward Docx

24, Jan, 2019 @8:57 AM

Article image
The Promise by Damon Galgut review – legacies of apartheid
The Booker-shortlisted novelist examines South Africa’s broken promises over the last three decades through the story of one white family

Jon Day

18, Jun, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
An Island by Karen Jennings review – compact allegory of postcolonialism
This Booker-longlisted fable about the turbulent history of an unnamed African country is small but powerful

Catherine Taylor

18, Aug, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
Goblin by Ever Dundas review – a brilliant picaresque
This prizewinning debut novel about the so-called ‘pet massacre’ of the second world war is a meditation on trauma and loss that brims with wild joy

Peter Ross

06, Dec, 2017 @7:29 AM