Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness (Harper (August 11, 2020)) rounds out my 2020 Booker Prize shortlist selections. This book has been heralded as the “environmental novel of our time” by Booker judge Lemn Sissay, but I’d like to think our time could do better. I think I’ve actually read better. (Barbara Kingsolver, anyone?)
Cook is a talented writer and the premise of the novel is certainly intriguing, but it comes off the rails pretty early on. It’s a fragment puzzle of a book with characters that are inconsistently portrayed. Those were some of the serious hiccups that held me back from fully enjoying a premise that I’ve dubbed The Hunger Games meets Divergent for adults. The dystopian game has been so strong in the YA world and so over done as of late, that I can’t help but wonder if this was initially intended for a younger audience and then reworked. That would explain some of the more jarring aspects with both Bea and Agnes.
The novel is set in a future where humans have destroyed much of the natural world except for the Wilderness State, a protected area of land upon which humans are not allowed. A study is initiated between the government, scholars, and scientists to see if humans can return to nature without destroying it. Bea, with a sickly child who needs “clean air” to survive, and Glen build up a team. Glen wants to go because of the science behind it. He’s a scholar with the heart of poet. Bea wants to go because it’s the only chance to save her daughter. A group of twenty are led into the Wilderness State with limited possessions and a lot of rules. They’re certainly not the qualified bunch of “survivalists” Glen envisioned, but it was hard enough to get twenty warm bodies to volunteer at all.
Agnes becomes healthy and feral in the Wilderness state. With little memory of the City, she’s quickly able to adapt. She learns to read the signs of the animals to determine where to go, what to eat, and when to be afraid. Despite her age, she earns the respect of those within the Community and becomes a leader who briefly breaks out of her mother’s shadow.
Man versus Nature and Man versus Man are two of the most common conflicts in literature, and Cook dabbles with both but neither seems fully developed. The nature versus nurture conflict is more defined but still a touch incomplete, leaving the reader with frayed edges and abandoned subplots. The characters were unlikeable and inconsistent, and the chronology was contradictory, especially when Agnes took the reins. It was quite the disappointment.