Images of fiery red skies and an ominous smoky gloom from California’s wildfires recently circulated on social media, providing a terrifying reminder of the effects of human civilization on the natural world. Today, the remaining wilderness is diminishing worldwide, natural disasters are increasing in severity and human populations are continuing to expand and threaten the natural world. These issues beg a question of the seemingly not-so-distant future: What will happen when nature can no longer support us? In Diane Cook’s timely debut novel, “The New Wildness,” the young author explores a dystopian reality in which the overcrowded City can no longer sustain its inhabitants and only a lucky few are able to escape by joining a survival study in the Wilderness State.
When Bea’s daughter Agnes falls ill from the toxic fumes of pollution in the City, the mother is told that Agnes won’t survive unless she gets her daughter out of the dangerous climate of the City. However, the only way out is to participate in a survival study in the Wilderness State, the last untouched wilderness, where a group of humans (the Community) are sent to live without the amenities and comforts of modern life. Bea and her lover Glen sign up for the study for Agnes’ sake, and so the trio’s life begins in the last wilderness, hunting and foraging for food and sleeping under the light of the stars.
The book follows the Community as they travel through the wilderness under the direction of the Rangers (the officials in charge of facilitating the study) and fight for survival in the harsh conditions. Agnes makes a quick recovery from her illness away from the dangerous air of the City and grows up acclimating to the ways of the wild.
Away from the comforts of civilization, the humans grow lean, bony, fierce and wild. With a blunt yet sensitive writing style, Cook explores how the demands of survival affect human nature in the uncharted wilderness. Agnes in particular watches the life around her, and makes keen comparisons between humans and animals, remarking that the Community lives “the same wild life” as the animals around them. As Cook also mentions in her afterword, she “researched real traditions, foodways, and skills of tribal populations, as well as of earlier primitive cultures” in depth to provide an authentic glimpse into human life in the wild.
Besides being a thoughtful case study of man in the wild, the novel also brilliantly encapsulates the trials of mother-daughter relationships. Agnes and her mother do not always see eye-to-eye and often end up in conflict. Both are strong-willed and defiant, yet they have a hard time understanding each other. Agnes yearns to form a deeper connection with her mother, but always seems deadlocked in a state of tension between her desire to be closer with Bea and the hostility that always seems to emerge in their interactions. Bea, on the other hand, struggles to understand her “strange, vibrant daughter” as she grows up to be a young woman and becomes foreign in her eyes. In the relationship between Bea and Agnes, Cook perfectly captures the essence of mother-daughter relationships. Full of heartbreak, betrayal, love and suspense, Cook’s observations hit home for the reader, even as Agnes and Bea live in the harsh and unfamiliar environment of the wilderness.
Also central to the novel is an apt understanding of human nature. The way Cook describes power hierarchies of humans in nature is reminiscent of “The Lord of the Flies,” as she masterfully describes the nuances of group dynamics. Bea seems to be locked in a constant power struggle, often forsaking her family and acting in bewildering ways to secure a leadership position in the Community. In Bea, Cook explores what it means to be an imperfect mother, leader and person. Always the enigma, it is often unclear what Bea’s motives for her actions are, and Agnes, Glen and the reader are often left guessing what she might do next. Agnes, meanwhile, grows up to take on more leadership positions, often clashing with other group leaders while struggling to figure out what she believes in. This is another strength of the novel; Cook’s characters are anything but predictable, yet all of their actions serve to deepen their personas. Bea and Agnes are interesting, nuanced and flawed, the kind of characters that grow on you as the novel progresses.
With a raw and unembellished glimpse into life in the wild, Cook’s debut novel promises to sweep readers off their feet. “The New Wilderness” was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, and rightly so. The novel is beautifully written, well-researched, utterly engrossing and deserves a shot at winning the prize. A tale of survival, motherhood, sacrifice and human nature, Diane Cook’s debut novel “The New Wilderness” offers both an enthralling escape and an unsettling warning about what the future might hold if we don’t take better care of our planet.
Daily Arts Writer Emma Doettling can be reached at email@example.com.