‘The New Wilderness’

*my own image

Over the last fortnight or so, I indulged myself with a new, dystopian novel; ‘The New Wilderness’. The newly established author, Diane Cook, was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker prize for her modern masterpiece.** Her book follows a group of civilians who, in an attempt to escape the increasingly dangerous city they live in, are sent out into the Wilderness and have to learn the ways of survival. The plot mainly follows two female protagonists, Bea and her daughter Agnes. As I already love dystopian fiction, I was excited to explore this new world and found myself increasingly compelled by how scarily easy it was to see how our world could one day become similar to Cook’s. Consequently, I found the book both intriguing and daunting. Two of the most notable ideas explored in the book were the effect environmental circumstance can have on humans, and also the intense but strong bond between mother, Bea, and daughter, Agnes. I would recommend ‘The New Wilderness’ to all fans of dystopian texts, and to those who enjoy exploring the idea of humans having to revert to the fundamentals of life. Although the novel does have some difficult moments, there is no need to worry about the book leaving you ‘down’, as some intense texts can, however I would recommend readers being 16+.

As only twenty individuals have permission to live in the wilderness, due to concerns about human destruction of habitats, there is often mention of how those who still remain in the City look down on the group of twenty and now see them as equivalents to animals. Particularly alarming to both citizens in the city, and us as readers, is how calm the characters seem to be when encountering death. The narration from the perspective of the characters themselves, ensures readers still see those in the wilderness as real people, but it does not prevent events like this from causing questioning of the morality of those living in the wilderness. For me, this brought about the idea of how humans can change due to their environment. Currently, the idea of living in complete wilderness, without housing, without proper hygiene and having to kill and cook your own food is terrifying. That being said, if I was to find myself in complete desperation, would I put aside these fears in order to survive? The nature of our fight or flight response and overall survival instincts, probably leads me to say yes. However, it is still such an interesting concept to think about. Our world has become so ‘civilised’, that their are certain things that as a society we agree are simply unacceptable. Hunting, adultery, nudity, not grieving, no tolerance for the ‘weak’, are all widely dismissed today but, as illustrated in ‘The New Wilderness’, are all things that begin to emerge once humans revert to purely surviving. I think the impact of environment is such a fascinating concept, and is already evidenced by the different cultures across the world.

One of my favourite aspects of the novel was the narrative style. In the first half(ish) of the book, we are introduced to the story through the perspective of Bea. Then, about half way through, this switches to the perspective of her daughter, Agnes. I absolutely loved this feature, as I enjoyed being able to see two different perspectives of similar events, and how it allowed the characters themselves to be explored differently. For example, Bea despises Val, one of the other women, and so as readers we are convinced to not think highly of her either. However, Agnes is much more warmed to Val, and so we are able to see her character in a different light later in the book. This was a clever way for Cook to enable some characters to develop, by simply switching the narrator to favour some characters more, and some less. I also found this narrative switch significant in exploring, not only the relationship between, but also the roles of mothers and daughters. Admittedly, Bea does not appear as the greatest mother at all times, but through the narration evidencing her feelings, we are able to gather her reasons and explanations as to why she acts the way she does. On the contrary, we hear Agnes’ heartbreak and confusion on her side, which enables us to explore her more as a character, as opposed to if we only simply heard descriptions of her from Bea’s perspective. Cook is excellent in exploring the perspectives of both the mother and the daughter, and the subplot of their relationship, was perhaps most captivating for me overall.

I was slightly underwhelmed by the ending of the book, but I’m not sure if that’s because it had been such a predictable ending, yet so unpredictable at the same time… (you’ll understand if you read it!). However, the rest of the story overpowered this, and the themes and concepts explored make it well worth a read. If you get round to giving it a go, let me know your thoughts!

** https://dianemariecook.com/

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