Diane Cook sets up an apocalyptic landscape where climate change and global warming has destroyed the world we know, told through the metaphor of a mother and child relationship.
N.B. This review contains spoilers.
Set in a dystopian future where only three locations exist — “The City,” “The Wilderness” and the mysterious “Promised Lands” — Diane Cook sets up an apocalyptic landscape where climate change and global warming has destroyed the world in which we know, haunted by humans, their habits, and the memories of what came before.
Told through the metaphor of a mother and child relationship, The New Wilderness is a brutal story of time running out. “The Wilderness,” described to the reader as an undefinably large stretch of natural land, is a protected space, inhabited only by animals and governed by officials in a last bid to protect what is left of the natural world, after the devastation of global warming. In the context of this, mankind has ceased to be important. Living in ‘The City’ in squalid, increasingly crowded settings, they breathe in the toxic air that is the result of years of environmental neglect. Overpopulation has made attitudes towards human life apathetic at the very least.
This is the situation that Bea and her five-year-old daughter Agnes find themselves in at the beginning of the novel. Agnes is sick, struggling to stay alive whilst breathing in the toxic air of The City. Desperate, Bea, Agnes and Bea’s husband Glen are some of the pioneering volunteers in a new study where humans go back to a tribal state, living in The Wilderness without modern amenities, luxuries or even medicines, and with little outside influence. Through a non-linear narrative split between Bea and Agnes, we see how the volunteers, known as “the community,” become accustomed to the sounds, smells and shapes of the land; they live off the food they hunt and kill, wearing and sleeping in animal skins and warming themselves by the heat of the fire. They must fit in with the natural world completely, leaving no evidence that they are there, and living a nomadic existence.
Yet as the book develops, we begin to see that the naturalness of their situation is a façade. The group must follow the rules of “Handbook” or risk having to leave. They must check in at their different ‘posts’ and have blood samples taken to pass onto scientists. They are herded by the authoritarian “rangers,” who patrol the land, monitoring their pollution levels and obedience to the rules.
Slowly, we see how this transition from city to nature was doomed from the start. We see how as nature prevails, humanity subsides; a casual death and a stillbirth, told with a to-the-point narrative, sets the scene for the uneasy balance between nature and mankind from the very first few pages of the book. Because although the dynamics within the community are strained and deaths common, it is the influence of the outside world that slowly causes the study to disintegrate and that something bigger is at play than the study alone. We realise that the outside forces that sustained the false version of brutal primitivity experienced by the community failed to account for human greed and subsequently, authoritarianism, and the reader is left questioning whether the way in which mankind functions has sentenced us to destruction.
This is one criticism that has been levelled at The New Wilderness: that it focuses more on the failures of environmental policy, rather than specifically on the effects of climate change itself. Government and authority figures are unsympathetic figures who are symptomatic of the authoritarian system that created the problem of climate change in the first place. We begin to sense this when we are told that a ranger takes pleasure in destroying a favourite necklace of the five-year-old Agnes, on the pretext that it is “polluting” the natural landscape. Later, a horrifying scene in which a pair of deer who have become attached to a young boy in the community are brutally shot by a ranger. Finally, this ends with the rangers telling the community that they must help to round up the thousands of City refugees who have fled to the Wildness in search of a better life, in a chilling echo of some of the issues surrounding migrant welfare today.
The New Wildness is thus a story about growing distance. It is the distance between Wildness and City; nature and nurture; ideology and authoritarianism; survival and cruelty; mother and daughter. Agnes is protective of the land and the way of life she knows; her memories of the city are from being a sick young child, and some of the children who live amongst the community who were born there, and know nothing different, see no reason to leave. Bea, however, is plagued by memories of civilisation, of family ties to the city, and to a time gone by. As Agnes becomes less domesticated, more animal than human, Bea realises that she must get her child to safety. But she is faced with the terrifying realisation that there is no longer an obviously safe place to go; the new people entering The Wilderness tell her that The City becomes more uninhabitable as time goes on, and the “pretty houses” of old “didn’t exist anymore.” Desperate, she puts her trust in an authority figure, who ultimately cheats her and proves Cook’s point: that human greed is the catalyst of destruction, and that the government cannot be trusted to fix the environmental disaster.
Although the issue of climate change is a backdrop, rather than at the forefront of the story, with authority and government positioned as the enemy, it would be impossible to read The New Wilderness without a haunting uneasiness. It is full of warning and uncertainty at the same time, with perspective change after perspective change. The Wilderness seems eerie when we, along with the tribe, think of it as deserted, but once we realise it is being used in a very similar way to a refugee camp, we see it for what it is: a government creation. We realise with bitter resignation at the end that the once protected Wilderness state has now been overrun by over 2,000 people, who are building and developing and irrevocably changing the land the community were once so in tune with.
Thus, although the discussion of climate change isn’t explicit, the reader understands what it is that has caused the situation that Bea and the others find themselves in. There is an intense, almost painful love for the natural world and the species within it, and few readers will have seen the way in which the community are in tune with the animals, the plants, the weather of the Wilderness, described so movingly. This is the subtext of the novel; the pain we will feel when all of it is gone, expressed and emphasised through the metaphor of the evolving, wrenching relationship between mother and daughter. And like all good dystopian fiction, this alternative future doesn’t seem too far from a possible future reality. Bea looks back at a time that doesn’t seem too different to our own with patronising benignity and the reader realises that we are running out of time. If a book about climate change makes us think about just what is at stake, then in my opinion it does what it set out to do.
The New Wilderness was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2020.
Written By: Holly Hamilton
18th June 2021