Review: The New Wilderness by Diane Cook

This was a strange read, and not quite what I was expecting, but I really got into it. It’s set in a dystopian future where wilderness spaces have nearly all been destroyed.  A nameless government sections off the Last Wilderness and no one can access it, except for Park Rangers and a group of 20 people chosen to participate in an experiment of living off the land and leaving as little footprint as possible. 

Bea and her husband Glen volunteered for this experiment because their daughter Agnes was dying from the poor air of the city. This means giving up their possessions to live off the land with a group of strangers. To stay, they’ll have to follow every rule the Park Rangers make for them. And to survive, they’ll have to rely on their new companions.

This is Cook’s first novel (she had previously published a book of short stories called Man V. Nature) and it was longlisted for 2020’s Booker Prize. I love books that are set in nature, especially where people have to survive in the wilderness. I love that combination of beauty, isolation, and danger. Cook brings that vividly to life.

This book was also surprisingly introspective. There’s a lot of detail about learning to live in the wild, but it’s also about the relationships between Bea, her husband, and their daughter. Told from different perspectives, Cook explores the struggles of each character in adapting to the wilderness and to their new dynamics. Glen has to deal with “alpha male” Carl, who threatens his relationship with his wife. Bea has to deal with seeing her daughter grow stronger, but more distant, each day.  Agnes slowly forgets the civilized world she came from. She’s somewhere between childhood and adulthood, but in the wilderness no one really knows what that means anymore.

The creatures. Agnes had noticed that a mother would only be a mother for so long before she wanted to be something else. No mother she’d ever watched here remained a mother forever.

The New Wilderness by Diane Cook

I love a psychological novel, and this one was perfect for me. Readers looking for a lot of action will be disappointed, though. While there’s danger at every turn, this novel is more about the journey of the characters — literally as well as figuratively, because the Park Rangers force the group to move camp every few days to limit their impact on the land. 

This worked well as an audiobook because it was more character than plot-driven. The audiobook narrator (Stacey Glembowski) was really good, though a bit melodramatic at times (that may have been the writing or the narration, I’m not sure which).

There were some things about the story that were frustrating, namely the idea of there being a “City” that’s gradually falling apart outside of the nature park. When the characters demand to know what’s happening, they are told almost nothing, just that things are constantly getting worse. I found the lack of information a bit maddening, and I always find stories about unnamed places a bit distracting. Where are we? And in the future, is there really just one city, one government? I can’t imagine a world where that makes sense. 

While the plot didn’t always work, what kept me reading was Cook’s vivid description of life in the wild, and the constantly-changing relationships among this small group of characters. I also appreciated the many interesting questions Cook posed, like what happens when you grow up in an environment with completely different social norms?  What does it mean to be a family, when you’re completely dependent on strangers?  And are they truly experiencing freedom in the wilderness or are they tools of a corrupt system?

This book won’t be for everyone, but I enjoyed it quite a bit, and found it a memorable read.  

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