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The New Wilderness

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A debut novel that explores a mother-daughter relationship in a world ravaged by climate change and overpopulation, a suspenseful second book from the author of the story collection, Man V. Nature.

Bea’s five-year-old daughter, Agnes, is slowly wasting away. The smog and pollution of the City—an over-populated, over-built metropolis where most of the population lives—is destroying her lungs. But what can Bea do? No one leaves the City anymore, because there is nowhere else to go. But across the country lies the Wilderness State, the last swath of open, protected land left. Here forests and desert plains are inhabited solely by wildlife. People are forbidden. Until now. 

Bea, Agnes, and eighteen others volunteer to live in the Wilderness State as part of a study to see if humans can co-exist with nature. Can they be part of the wilderness and not destroy it? Living as nomadic hunter-gatherers, this new community wanders through the grand country, trying to adhere to the strict rules laid down by the Rangers, whose job it is to remind them they must Leave No Trace. As the group slowly learns to live and survive on the unpredictable and often dangerous land, its members battle for power and control and betray and save each other. The farther they roam, the closer they come to their animal soul.

To her dismay, Bea discovers that, in fleeing to the Wilderness State to save Agnes, she is losing her in a different way. Agnes is growing wilder and closer to the land, while Bea cannot shake her urban past. As she and Agnes grow further apart, the bonds between mother and daughter are tested in surprising and heartbreaking ways.

Yet just as these modern nomads come to think of the Wilderness State as home, its future is threatened when the Government discovers a new use for the land. Now the migrants must choose to stay and fight for their place in the wilderness, their home, or trust the Rangers and their promises of a better tomorrow elsewhere.

398 pages, Hardcover

First published July 11, 2020

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About the author

Diane Cook

37 books429 followers
Diane Cook is the author of the novel, THE NEW WILDERNESS, and the story collection, MAN V. NATURE, which was a finalist for the Guardian First Book Award, the Believer Book Award, and the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. Her writing has appeared in Harper's, Tin House, Granta, and other publications, and her stories have been included in the anthologies Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. She is a former producer for the radio program This American Life, and was the recipient of a 2016 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,804 reviews
Profile Image for Kat.
260 reviews79.2k followers
June 17, 2021
oh how the turn tables
Profile Image for Roxane.
Author 116 books156k followers
July 25, 2020
Gripping, fierce, terrifying examination of what people are capable of when they want to survive in both the best and worst ways. Loved this.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,393 reviews2,387 followers
September 5, 2020
Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020 (... somehow)

** Full of spoilers **

A cross between The Hunger Games and... I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!

Honestly, where to start with this book which is utterly perplexing? And I mean that at the plot level (more of which later) and at the fact that it's on the 2020 Booker long-list. It's like The Hunger Games without either the danger (people can leave The Wilderness anytime, 'When you know the time you want to go, we can call you a taxi,' says a Ranger helpfully), or the world-building; and reminded me frequently of the pointless inanity of I'm a Celebrity... Carl eats grubs, a newcomer turns up wearing 'a torn animal-print skirt and glittery sandals' with gold nail polish on her toes. The start tries to immerse us in a risky scenario with a stillbirth followed by a woman being swept away in a river - but then, job done, nothing happens to anyone else, until Glen trips over (or does he? dun dun dun!) at the end.

I'm utterly bemused at other readers seeing this as a cli-fi dystopia: there's a comically generic background of The City (just one, then?) filled with marauding gangs and the ubiquitous rats, but we never understand the point of The Wilderness. We know 20 people have volunteered to go there as part of an academic study - but we're not told what is being studied, they don't seem to know what is being studied and neither do their families who write to them to come home (yep, they get their mail! And Glen gets sent the minutes from his departmental meetings!), and no-one knows how long they'll be there, which perhaps doesn't matter given that they can get a taxi out of there any time they want. In fact, the plot turns on the rather ludicrous fact that the moment Bea wants to leave, a big truck drives by and she hitches a lift straightaway out of the Wilderness and back to The City. They're vaguely policed by the Rangers who also drive around in big trucks (so fossil fuels are still in use) and the occasional helicopter and drone, until years have passed and suddenly the Rangers realise that trucks might not be so good for the environment and temporarily swap to horses, but they're back in trucks again by the end.

The Rules as codified in The Manual which the group lug around but never seem to read state that they're not allowed to settle anywhere, so there's no cultivation of food or domestication of animals - they're simply nomads who wander aimlessly. Rangers turn up and tell them, for example, they have to go to Lower Post and so off they trek on a what? six month journey? We don't know but the only reason they're going is because the Rangers tell them they'll have a party there and they're all up for a party, right? Right? And for some weird reason, they pick up rubbish/garbage, carry it around until they reach a Rangers' post where it is weighed before the Rangers dispose of it.

Some of the bizarre elements include that they make a big thing about losing a rope at the beginning, they're still angsting about a sharp knife that got lost seven years ago... and yet their relatives can send in parcels (including elaborate gateaux-style cakes... through the mail). Their knives seem sharp enough to cut up the rabbits and deer they hunt and eat so that seems to get forgotten about, and we never see them in any situation that requires a rope after the opening pages. They also carry around what sounds like a massive cooking cauldron that is too heavy for one person to lift and cutely call it the Cast Iron, just as they term the drone (after a debate as to whether it's a small helicopter or a large drone) 'the metal bird'. Oh and no-one knows how many days, months or years pass or how old the children are so they seem to have forgotten that nightfall/sleep is a massive clue to measuring days, ditto seasons which they notice to reckoning years. They notice women having their periods but seem to have forgotten that gives them a rough estimate of months. There's no mention of the moon or stars. Agnes has a pen and notepad which she uses to write covert notes to Ranger Bob (who slips her contraband green lollipops - why contraband when they are sent cakes and cookies in their parcels?) so there's no logical reason why no-one knows how much time has passed.

The level of obscurity in the writing means that it's impossible to 'see' the characters: what are they wearing, for example, after years in the Wildnerness? Agnes mentions her 'tunic', one of the men has jeans patched with buckskin, but Jake's 'canvas high-tops were still perfectly folded over, and the white rubber toe was still white even though he'd been walking in them for many, many, many seasons.' Blimey! And the 'newcomers' arrive with suitcases, clad in Bermuda shorts and the previously mentioned strappy gold sandals. I don't know but let's just say if I were heading into The Wilderness (which, for the record, I would never do - urban girl, me!) I might be thinking more tough boots and layers, y'know?

Ok, I need to stop now but just have to mention two Disney-alike moments when Agnes talks to a squirrel *and thinks she hears it talk back to her* just like a Disney princess; and when a boy befriends a doe and her faun, the three sleep together in one bed... until the prescribed Rangers with big guns turn up to bring that nauseatingly twee scenario to a bloody end. Yeuch!

Honestly, I just didn't see the point of this. It's not that The Administration is re-setting humanity's relationship to Nature as there's actually very little interaction: as I said, no cultivation of crops, no domestication or breeding of animals. The group simply wander nomadically and aimlessly as the Rangers arbitrarily direct - and, at the end, they're all kicked out and houses are being built for what is implied to be an elite new population.

The writing is merely workmanlike ('shaky, toothpick legs', 'her sand-pocked knees'), there's no plot, the much vaunted mother-daughter relationship is barely more than 'I'm an adult now and I want to lead the group, so there', there's little survivalist instinct (ok, Carl is apparently sleeping with all the women but he's no alpha male), and the book is as pointlessly wandering as the group. The whole scenario is thinly imagined with no internal consistency or logic.

I have to admit though that there's a kind of horrified amusement that drove me to finish this, albeit with some skimming - it almost reads as a self-parody which had me laughing myself silly at points. But Booker material? What were they thinking?
Profile Image for Nilufer Ozmekik.
2,132 reviews39.3k followers
June 7, 2021
This is dark, wild, earth shattering, mind spinning, WTH I just read, I need a big break to gather my feelings kind of book! This is quiet dazzling, thought provoking, unique, depressing, apocalyptic, soul crushing dystopian read is not for everyone! I feel like my head can explode at any second after too much pressure, high tension, after reading dark portrait of future with painful mother-daughter’s survival story.

Impressive and emotional mother-daughter bounding and heart-wrenching journey they find themselves to test their devoted relationship during the climate change, living in the Wilderness and witnessing the human’s mental and physical struggles to survive. Welcome to Wilderness! As the smog and pollution covers the metropolis and destroys its citizens’ lungs, 20 people become volunteers for the study including Bea, her husband Glen, an important academician and their daughter Agnes. The rules are defined strictly by the Rangers: they have to play nice, do what they’re told. Unless… You don’t want to think it through.

They called themselves community and learned how to use arrow and bow to hunt, achieve struggling tasks to adapt their lives in environment, sharpen their negotiation skills to survive. Rules are obvious: You shouldn’t stay at the same place more than seven days and you shouldn’t leave trace. But as the environment and the circumstances surrounded them bring out the caged animals hid inside the human nature, Bea realizes she has to do something to save her daughter. She cannot live with these conditions.

The changing of community volunteers become so threatening at each day and so many waitlisted refugees called Newcomers start to arrive the city, Bea notices the time is ticking. The city people turn into savages who may do whatever it takes to earn their freedom.

Overall: This is original, well-written, disturbing journey I mostly enjoyed but I have to emphasize: this journey is not for everyone. You need to prepare yourself to be challenged psychologically. It’s consuming, intense story for the true lovers of bleak future dystopian stories.

Special thanks to NetGalley and Harper Collins Publishers for sharing this remarkable ARC in exchange my honest review.

Profile Image for Henk.
822 reviews
September 27, 2020
Uneven and underwhelming, and I really like dystopian fiction as a genre.
Nothing in this novel hasn’t already been done better (and with humor) by Margaret Atwood in the MaddAddam trilogy

Of course they were different from deers, but not as different as they had always imagined - about leaving someone behind

I don't think I ever compared a Booker shortlisted book with an unspectacular version of The Hunger Games but The New Wilderness invoked this thought quite early on while reading. An other comparison that came to mind, due to a lack of technology and a focus on survival skills, was The Clan of the Cave Bear.
Both comparisons are not the most literary of works, but still this book manages to fall short when sized up against those novels.

Give me modern day life
Its not that those losses weren’t difficult its just that loss was now a part of daily life as so many new things were.

Bea (mother) and Agnes (daughter) are, together with 18 others, dropped in an unspecified wilderness state. As reader we are thoroughly reminded that the wilderness is not an idyllic state but a brutal place where death can simply be referred to as ceased surviving.
And there is a lot of that in the first part of the book, here Diane Cook successfully manages to conjure a feeling of a world wherein teacups and ropes as vestiges of civilization seem more important than a human life.
How does one not go numb in such circumstances and is there really a community with so much deaths? And why is a stillborn, where the book kicks off with, such a big deal in a community hardened by everyday loss?

Slowly and surely as we plow through the 400 plus pages, the sense of place and environment description simply don't cut it anymore. The community is forced to move, not to live sedentary, by rangers who keep watch on them and herd them as cattle. There are arcane rules to force the 11 people remaining after 5 years to reduce their environmental impact. Meanwhile adherence to said rules is checked by rangers in trucks inspecting them.
Chapter 2 is an small infodump on why Agnes needed to leave the city (bad lungs, fortunately air pollution doesn't travel, even though the city is omnipresent in this not to far future) and how Bea felt about this when she just became an interior designer.
if anything it made me think back of The Mandibles: A Family, 2029–2047 and how Lionel Shriver much more convincingly paints the portrait of societal collapse and what this means for everyday people.

More and more I got the feeling I was reading the literary equivalent of Utopia, a Dutch reality TV show of strangers put together in an abandoned enclosed field, with the task of building a society. They were filmed all the time and as one can expect the result was quite boring so the network introduced stuff to incite drama and in the end staged a finale because otherwise not much would happen.
Cooks approach is similar, from chapter 3 we have a kind of gorilla man inciting some conflict, later on the rangers force the community to move around on absurdly long marches (if these people even move 10km per day the wilderness is more than 1.800 km across), there are some newcomers, an unexplained dead, a surprise escape, some fabled Elysium movie like lands where everything is oke...
The whole world building and plot is a mess and in the end I can only say I did like the end because fortunately that part was not as spun out as the intermediate parts.

Mother and daughter
And she loved Agnes fiercely though motherhood felt like a heavy coat she was compelled to pull on each day, no matter of the weather

One thing the book does get right, even though I wanted to shake Agnes quite a lot of times for her seeming incapacity to just try to talk to her mom, is the mother daughter relationship. Sure, Bea is rather erratic and as said Agnes is very teenager like, all in her own point of reference, but there are real moments of warmth and emotion here. Like being cultural so far removed that you need to ask your daughter if she remembers pizza, cheese, tomatoes. Or the illness of her stepfather and the impact of this on the little family.
Pain comes back as well, because basically Bea gave up her modern day city life (and trust me, after this book you will not want to miss you shower, refrigerator, health insurance, central heating and rule of law) for Agnes her health. Conversely, she does something rather unsympathetic around 40% in the book that leaves Agnes wondering how far the motherly love goes.

The rest of the characters are, despite Agnes continually muttering on about not understanding humans, rather cardboard like. Maybe it doesn't help that Cook doesn't seem to imbue them with any other curse word than fuck. And I can hardly imagine how people fight over power when they are with 7 adults or something, what even is power then besides controlling the food rations? The level of apathy is rather high, the psychopath/protohitler guy is largely left unchecked but around 60% in the book is just appeased with some sex...
It again makes you wonder about the world, why are people not psychologically screened or selected on any skills before being send to the Wilderness State? Why are people so woefully unprepared, certainly taking into account the exploits of the first group are apparently televised in the City.
Why don’t they just kill the ranger in chapter 6, after such a time of complete freedom?
What even are they (or the author for that matter) working towards to?

Concluding thoughts
It’s better to miss something you can’t have than think there is nothing worth missing.

One can read in The New Wilderness a parable on being a refugee (and how we all will be in a world more and more ravaged by climate change). Or a warning how extreme circumstances lead people to believe in the cultus of extroverts and storytellers, demagoguery.
But the execution is just not convincing.
And Agnes becomes very annoying in the concluding chapters, she is channeling a child who doesn’t want to move to a new school and sees that move as the end of the world. Plus she thinks she can outdo the native Americans and just hide for encroaching sedentary life, when the number of people and technology against her are staggering.

The convoluted and rambling plot just sucks the air out of what this book could have said and meant. On to the other Booker nominees, or even better, just a good Margaret Atwood novel.
Profile Image for Marchpane.
293 reviews2,106 followers
September 27, 2020

Curb Your Dystopianism

The New Wilderness sets a mother-daughter drama against a dystopian backdrop—a world overrun with polluted, overpopulated cities, with only one tiny pocket of nature remaining. Sounds compelling right? Sadly this story is more like a really terrible camping trip than a convincing possible future.

In the beginning, there were twenty. Officially, these twenty were in the Wilderness State as part of an experiment to see how people interacted with nature, because, with all land now being used for resources—oil, gas, minerals, water, wood, food—or storage—trash, servers, toxic waste—such interactions had become lost to history.

The novel revolves around city-raised Bea and her child-of-the-wild Agnes. There are other characters who exist only to be redshirted or fulfil cliché plot functions. The worldbuilding is weak and illogical and doesn’t serve the story—this could just as easily have been a pre-2020 story about a mother-daughter duo in a hippy survivalist cult, and honestly, I think it would have turned out better that way.

Agnes emerges eventually as a somewhat interesting character, an otherworldly girl who grows into confidence and autonomy, clashing with Bea both personally and ideologically. She just isn’t given nearly enough to do beyond observe.

The Community, amid the usual power plays and intrigues, wanders aimlessly, much like the plot. After a long, dull trudge, the novel’s conclusion is a breathless rush, checking off plot points and predictable twists like someone speeding to get through all their remaining PowerPoint slides in the final 5 minutes of their presentation.

In the absence of coherent worldbuilding, this book needed something else—emotional engagement, thrilling plot or stand-out writing—but I didn’t find these either (sample prose, emphasis mine: The girl’s eyes clouded over with the clouds that rolled overhead.)

So, I was left to bat away persistent niggling questions: Why are they lugging books around yet they’re still so clueless? Why do magazines and snail mail still exist? Why is there zero mention of indigenous history when it's obviously relevant to this story? etc. One big ‘But WHY???’

The New Wilderness has a great elevator pitch but sloppy execution and is a forgettable entry in the cli-fi genre. 2.5 dirt encrusted stars.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,747 reviews1,198 followers
December 30, 2020
Now shortlisted for the 2020 Booker shortlist - much the weakest on the list in my view (as it was weakest on the longlist also).

I have now read her previous short story collection "Man Vs. Nature" referred to below - and in my review (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) I examine why that, in my view, was so much more successful as a short story collection than this was as a novel:


. walking ahead of the Community, Agnes felt proud to be leading, just another kind of creature on a mass migration … finding water the way all creatures must. It wasn’t that she didn’t always feel this way each day they’d been out here. .... But there was something about the scope of what she could see now. . ….. Looking across the vast plain and seeing all the animals moving as one, in one direction, with the same needs, she felt a part of the place in a way she hadn’t before. She’d never realized she felt apart from it. But she guessed she had in some unknowable way. It was their reliance on the water spigots. On the maps. On the fact that they checked in with Rangers. They were never fully living on their own. Not like these animals were every day. Not until now. And she was leading. ….. When they left the City, her mother hadn’t called it a trip, or an adventure, or something temporary. She had said, “This is our new home.” … She felt like that small girl again, listless and coughing, turning a handkerchief red …. But that was no longer her. She was no longer that small girl, curiously watching from a distance, from behind her mother or behind Glen. …. She was a part of it all. It all depended on her.

I read this book due its longlisting for the 2020 Man Booker prize – an intriguing longlist noticeable for featuring 9 US based authors, 9 female authors and 8 debutant novelists – with this book representing one of the 4 books at the intersection of that Venn diagram.

The author has previously published a collection of short stories: “Man V. Nature”. In interviews about that collection said “that's how a lot of the stories in Man v. Nature came about … Through thinking, reading, watching nature documentaries, or just observing the natural world. I'm mostly interested in how humans are still animalistic and whether we once had a wilder existence than we do now.” and also how she often went away to the woods to write where “I’d witness wild tragedies, too: predation, death, abandonment, grief. I became curious about how a person might react to the kind of hardships that exist in the wild. It became one of the preoccupations of the book. I wondered under what circumstances those more primal instincts might rear up again in us. How many of our basic behaviors are really just small or large efforts to survive.”

I believe that these ideas, in a far more detailed form than can be permitted in a short story, were much of the driving force behind this novel.

The Guardian (who shortlisted that collection for their 2015 First Book award) described it as featuring “high-concept dystopias that belong in the realm of SF or fairytale or parable … [which] amplify the emotional states and subconscious forces that drive everyday life, such as grief, shame, desire and need”.

If I had to describe this novel (with a conscious nod to the above) I would say it is:

A high-concept dystopia, which leads to a small group of individuals being made the subjects of a cross between a nature documentary and a survival reality-show, which amplifies alpha male-female rivalries and allows the exploration of mother-daughter relationships.

(Note that the title story of “Man V Nature” has the stranded characters reframing their predicament as a reality TV pitch).

The dystopian set up features more as an important backdrop to the novel and like many dystopias is an extrapolation of current trends (at least pre-COVID trends). Implicitly a combination of climate change, over-population and capitalistic consumption have led to a USA (albeit the country is never stated) where many regions (The Heat Belt, the Fallow Lands, the New Coast) have been long since abandoned and the majority of the population live in the City, an overcrowded and increasingly violent urban landscape where pollution levels make childhood ill-health endemic and where over-population means life is cheap. The elite are rumoured to have fled to the fabled Private Lands. The City is supported by a group of productive areas – the Manufacturing Zone, the Mines, the Refineries “The cities of greenhouses, the rolling landfills, the sea of windmills, the Woodlots, the Server Farms”.

One state has effectively been re-wilded as a refuge for wildlife: “The Wilderness State”. In a controlled experiment (whose purpose is not entirely clear) a group of twenty skilled volunteers (ideally “with knowledge of flora and fauna and biology and meteorology”) is picked to enter the state, subject to a series of rules (no domestication, no settlement, strict picking up of even micro-trash, restoration of the area after they leave) written down in the Manual and more or less vigorously policed by the Rangers, whose function seems to evolve over time alongside their uniforms, reflecting the differing aims of The Administration.

The two main third party point of view characters are Agnes and her daughter Bea – Agnes’s husband (not Bea’s father) Glen was a University researcher in The City and when Bea’s health deteriorated rapidly, he pressed the Wilderness project and the three of them as founder participants. Something which, when Bea went through with it, lead to a breech with her own mother.

The book starts some three years later, the twenty depleted by accident and ill-health, and with an impactful scene as Bea self-delivers her second daughter who is still born, before rejoining the group with little comment (note that the loss of a daughter and the ability of a mother to move on from it seems to me to fit the “Somebody’s Baby” story from ““Man V. Nature” – the baby in that story also a Beatrice).

Thereafter the dynamics both in the nuclear family and in the remaining group change and tensions emerge.

When Bea impulsively flees to the City for a period (after the death of her mother) Agnes’s already burgeoning independence grows even stronger – and her sense that she is at home in the Wilderness whereas Bea is still a visitor. And as Glen’s health fails, his influence and support of a consensus making approach to decision making fades and another male – Carl (originally Glen’s research student but unlike Glen who adapts practically to the hunting/nomadic lifestyle) – takes more of a leadership position, the dynamics developing further as Bea returns and as their group is re-expanded both by the Newcomers (who join The Originalists) before then encountering the Mavericks and the Trespassers.

The group dynamics (the alpha leaders, the way in which sub-groups favour their own tribe for food distribution, the way in which the sick take themselves off to die, the way in which children are forced into independence) are strongly described and reminded me very much of reading the book “Dynasties” – which accompanied the recent BBC wildlife series of the same name.

Another thing that is clear from the book (and confirmed in the acknowledgments) is that the author has heavily researched nomadic lifestyles and set alongside vivid descriptions of flora, fauna, landscape, I felt that the details of the group’s travels were very convincing – particularly when we enter into Agnes’s point of view and see through her how she uses her observations of animal behaviour and landscape to lead the group’s progress.

But I also had some areas that I rated less highly.

After the impactful opening scene, the book seems to drift, really for 200 or so pages and perhaps for me, never fully gets back on track until towards the end of the book as Agnes fully takes over the story arc (including a first party ending). I do not want literary novels to adopt Dan Brown style cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter, but I did feel that this book took things a little too far to the opposite extreme: if it were not for my desire to read the full Booker longlist I feel I easily could have abandoned this novel at various points.

Further many of the dystopian/societal details I found inconsistent (just one example - quite a bit is made of how over time the community develops a hardened attitude to death due to all the death they see around them - and which surprises outsiders they come into contact with; but we are also told that in the City, due to overpopulation, emergencies are not treated by doctors as they are seen as fate).

But perhaps the real strength of the book lies less in its dystopian considerations and more in its examination of mother-daughter relationships and how these evolve as each generation takes its turn on the other side of the dynamic (both influenced by and finally appreciating the behaviour of their own mothers).

Overall I found this an interesting read but one that was too slowly paced and also one where I was not sure for much of the book where it was really trying to go, an impression which I did not entirely lose when I finished it.

I can see this book’s appeal but it was not for me.

My thanks to Oneworld for an ARC via NetGalley.

When she becomes obstinate. When she becomes different from me. What will we share if we can’t share this? Will we be nothing but strangers? I want to grab her in these moments, squeeze her too hard, growl into her hair, never let her go. But she always wriggles free, unfazed, or maybe with a small eye roll. She knows she has everything I can give her. I think of my mother in these moments. She was someone who never did what I expected her to. When she looked at me, I didn’t understand what her look meant. She looked at me sharp-eyed, her mouth twisting and pained. As though looking at me hurt her sometimes. I didn’t understand it until I had the chance to care for this little Fern and I looked at her and saw all that came before and all that would come after and all its potential awfulness and certain beauty and it was too much for me to bear. I looked away, scared, disgusted, overcome with love, on the verge of crying and laughing, and finally, finally, finally I began to know my mother.
Profile Image for Doug.
1,937 reviews671 followers
November 11, 2020
From the description, I probably would not have been enticed into reading this ecological fable cum dystopian novel, were it not for its inclusion on this year's Booker longlist. And although the first few pages seemed promising, the further in I got, the more disenchanted I became. In an interview, the author is quoted as saying: "Many days, writing would feel like a slog just to get a few pages down while barely making a dent in the overall draft. There were still so many more pages to go. So I wrote with an outline for the first time. It was necessary in order to remind me I had somewhere I was trying to get to.", and I must say that feeling of trudging through molasses infects the reader also - and that outline didn't seem to help much, since a clear through-line never develops and there are several hundred pages devoted to slogging though the wilderness rather aimlessly.

The 'world building' required for a really interesting explication of the issues the author apparently wished to address around climate change, man's animalistic nature, and the mother-daughter bond, is woefully underdeveloped. We never get any concrete sense of exactly what the experiment at the heart of the book is for, nor who the Rangers are, nor what has happened to have led to there only being a small area of wilderness left. Although ambiguity has its place, at times I felt like a Kafka protagonist, trying to work out meaningless tasks set by a faceless administration.

The lack of an exciting plot might have been forgiven if it weren't for some issues with both characterization and the prose style. Only the central characters of the mother and daughter, as well as a mere handful of the others are clearly defined - the rest blur into an undifferentiated, one-dimensional mass. And while the daughter Agnes more or less 'makes sense', mother Bea seems all over the map, with contradictory behavior that I think is intended to render her complicated and complex - but just makes her ... contradictory ... and unlikeable.

Sloppiness abounds - Agnes is 8 at the beginning of the book, and then about a year later, starts to menstruate, which, given her age and the fact that she is seriously malnourished and underweight seems highly unlikely. Her scalp gets shaved when she smears it with sap, and then a few months later, another pioneer gives her a second haircut, complaining she is getting shaggy and her hair will reach her waist soon - when it would have been hard pressed to have grown more than an inch or two.

The dialogue is stilted and clichés are rampant (e.g., 'her heart skipped a beat'). I understand the author has been hired to turn this into a screenplay, but I pity the actors trying to make her dialogue sound natural and realistic, or really anything other than hokey. A resounding error from this year's Booker judges, who sidestepped quite a few eminently worthier entries.
Profile Image for Prerna.
220 reviews1,258 followers
September 26, 2020
Shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize

According to a study of 293 of the world's leading port cities conducted by NASA, my quaint little coastal hometown is the most vulnerable of all of India's ports to the effects of climate change. The sea level is predicted to rise by 14.60 cm a century from now. What this means is that by 2100, my hometown will surely be uninhabitable and may go under water.

Although it may seem like an event in the distant, unfathomable future, we are facing its precursors right now. In the past three years, the western coastal region of India has seen turbulent monsoons, increased flooding and deadly landslides.

Amitav Ghosh, in his seminal book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable published in 2016 made a case for a sub-genre of fiction dealing with climate change. Fiction after all is an important imaginative device, fiction is capable of constructing a bridge between the transitory, ordinary present and the inscrutable, unforeseeable future.

That climate change casts a much smaller shadow within the landscape of literary fiction than it does even in the public arena is not hard to establish. To see that this is so we need only glance through the pages of a few highly regarded literary journals and book reviews, for example, the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Literary Journal and the New York Times Review of Books. When the subject of climate change appears in these publications, it is almost always in relation to non-fiction; novels and short stories are very rarely to be glimpsed within this horizon. Indeed, it could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously by serious literary journals: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.

And we do need books that probe into the themes of climate change, overpopulation, post climate change living, disaster management and human solidarity. Fortunately, The New Wilderness is one such book. Unfortunately, it mostly sucks.

I have always struggled with separating unlikeable characters from the story itself. In fact, I have always struggled with unlikeable characters in general. I don't know how fair it is of us to demand that the characters we read of be likeable. One of the wonderful things about fiction is that it represents all facets of humanity. And this story has hordes of unlikeable characters, the foremost of them being Carl and Bea. But while navigating a strange, unfamiliar world even within fiction, the least I expect is a reliable protagonist.

The plot itself is quite boring, some ends seem frayed and the author seems to have picked up certain plot lines on a whim, only to abandon them later.

But what I take an issue with is the premise itself. That human beings when left amidst wilderness will turn savage themselves and only live within a communal structure that relies on a brutal, teeth-baring alpha figure. That it's in our nature to resort to duals and animalistic fucking to settle arguments that's reminiscent of our supposed nomadic past. I think it's fair to conclude that we've come a long way from that and when trying to survive in an unknown territory as a group, would still rely on well organized structures.

At the heart of this story is the supposed complication of a mother-daughter relationship. It's mostly a story of mothers doing things secretively to protect their offspring, and daughters being eternally wary and vowing to never turn out like their mothers. But alas, we cannot escape the trappings of our genetics and so eventually we do end up like the mothers we scorned and finally understand them.
Seriously, writers need to stop milking this thematic cow.

I’ll tell her this story and the others with all their complications and confusions because those complications and confusions are what make them true. It feels at times like the only instinct left in me. It’s the only way I know to raise a daughter. It’s how my mother raised me.

Although I did not particularly enjoy this book, I will acknowledge its importance. It covers important themes that need to be discussed and normalized. Our news channels should be dedicating entire prime-time slots for many of these themes, so people can understand the threat of the disasters looming over us and the need for an immediate solution.

I worry for the people of my hometown. For my parents, neighbors, friends, extended family. I suppose I could just ask them to sell their houses and move.

I have been on a lookout for fiction that exclusively deals with the theme of climate change ever since I read The Great Derangement. I've had Flight Behavior that Ghosh praised in his book on my radar for a long time now. If you know of more books, please do let me know. It will be greatly appreciated.
Profile Image for Trudie.
520 reviews553 followers
October 26, 2022

It is hard to know if it was the casual mention of Miranda July in the book blurb or the blackly comical early demise of the group's river crossing expert in a river crossing incident (R.I.P Caroline), that led me to believe that this was going to be some sort of send-up of dystopias.

Exchanges like this seemed to be the punch line to a Monty Python skit :

"You've got to head Lower. And you know where I mean, right? Even though it's Lower, it's not just lower. "...
Carl growled, "Lower Middle? Why all the way down there? "
"Not Lower Middle. Lower."
"But it's right in the middle here" - Carl pointed "and it's lower"
"Look this one's called Lower post. And you've got to go there. That's all that matters

Unfortunately, time revealed that I was reading this under a misapprehension. This turned out to be one of several increasingly clunky exchanges that eroded my faith in the writing. And I did start out quite enthused by it, for one thing, it is funny ( even if unintentionally) and the premise was engaging.

The idea of sending hapless city slickers into a vast designated Wilderness area in order to watch them slowly morph from moderately equipped overnight hikers to a nomadic hunter-gatherer tribe seemed like a reality show set up. Community members learn to hunt by trial and error, sew with sinews and debate the need for group consensus. At one point someone ponders the domestication of deer and one character appears to regress to quadrupedal movement.

Is this a novel about the perils and joys of de-evolution?

In a surprise twist, Park Rangers act generally like the oppressor, tasking the Community to walk from post to post, leaving no trace on the land. The main problem here is a lack of real purpose both for the characters and the readers of the book. At a stretch, you could consider this a novel about motherhood, specifically the challenges of parenting in the wild, but knowing you could hop a ride, unimpeded back to the city lowered the stakes considerably. 

Alas, this is 400 pages of an increasingly meandering and vague pseudo-dystopia, marred by some odd style choices. I leave you with the birth of Baby Egret as my epitaph to a strange reading experience

She lost her words in the middle of a conversation as her body clenched, beginning to begin labour. ..
She birthed Baby Egret amid the lows of the animals at their third watering hole. She called him Baby Egret as though to ensure no one confused him with one of the milk-white bird’s tiptoeing through the mud. The birth was easy and quick and Val appeared very satisfied by that.
Profile Image for Jennifer ~ TarHeelReader.
2,088 reviews30.1k followers
August 13, 2020
The New Wilderness is an eco thriller/dystopian regarding climate change and overpopulation.

About the book: Helen Phillips meets Miranda July in this daring and imaginative debut novel that explores a moving mother-daughter relationship in a world ravaged by climate change and overpopulation, a suspenseful second book from the author of the acclaimed story collection, Man V. Nature.

My thoughts: This book is hard to describe other than to tell you it’s exciting and unlike anything else I’ve ever read. The future is dark, very dark, and feels vividly real. The book took over my life while I was reading it. I couldn’t put it down, and when I did, I was constantly thinking about it. Could it happen? Would it happen? It’s full of emotion and beautifully-written. I’ve not read Man V. Nature, but I desperately want to now.

I received a gifted copy. All opinions are my own.

Many of my reviews can also be found on my blog: www.jennifertarheelreader.com and instagram: www.instagram.com/tarheelreader
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,254 reviews49 followers
September 15, 2020
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020 (God only knows why - this one isn't even a political choice)

I do not normally seek out dystopian fiction, and have seen some negative reviews of this book from friends I trust, but I found it surprisingly gripping and for the most part credible.

In the future world of this book, most of the (American?) population lives in a single large City, which is becoming too polluted for children to thrive in. The Wilderness State is a state that has been set aside and allowed to revert to nature, patrolled and defended by the Rangers.

The main protagonists are female members of a group of 20 people that has been permitted to settle in the Wilderness as long as they abide by a strict Manual which attempts to minimise their "footprint" and follow the instructions of the Rangers.

Bea(trice) agrees to join her academic partner Glen (the architect of the settlement project) and her sick young daughter Agnes in the group, hoping that the cleaner environment will prove beneficial to Agnes's health. The story of the group's period in this wilderness is mostly told chronologically apart from one move backwards near the start.

I was impressed by how well Cook described the environment of the wilderness, the hazards the group faced and the problems they faced adapting to a primitive nomadic lifestyle. Mother/daughter relationships, the dysfunctional dynamics of the group and how they start to adopt elements of pack animal behaviour are key themes. The story of how Agnes develops an intuitive understanding of the new environment rather better than the adults around her is convincing and moving.

The framing narrative seemed rather less plausible, and a few of the group's choices seemed a little far-fetched, but that seems secondary to the main story. For me, this is another book that deserves the recognition its longlisting should bring it.
Profile Image for Peter Boyle.
480 reviews587 followers
August 30, 2020
This ecological tale is set in the near future. American cities have become overcrowded, consuming massive amounts resources, so that there only one area of untouched terrain left. Twenty volunteers choose to take part in an experiment, to see how they can survive in this "Wilderness state". They have minimal possessions and are allowed to hunt & forage, but they must leave no trace of themselves behind. They are expected to follow rules laid out in a manual, while Rangers watch their movements. Among this community are Bea and Agnes, a mother and daughter. Agnes was very sick as a child in the city, and Bea brought her on this study in the desperate hope that her health would improve. She has thrived and taken to this new life in a positive way, picking up many valuable skills. Bea on the other hand misses her old life and finds herself becoming a reluctant leader of the group. The story follows the community's struggle to survive, as they drift farther from the guidelines set out for them.

I'm afraid this novel moved too slowly for me to enjoy it. Especially at the beginning, it takes such a long time to get going. It seems like there are endless descriptions of the landscape. Eventually the mother-daughter friction starts to get interesting, but I'm afraid it will have lost many readers by that point. It is a very timely tale, addressing an urgent topic like climate change in a thoughtful way. And its portrayal of maternal love is quite moving at times. I just wish the book's editor had cut about a hundred pages from it. With some tightening up, it could have been a much more effective parable.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,039 followers
Shelved as 'did-not-finish'
September 26, 2020
This is on the Booker shortlist and is a good reminder that I don't always agree with award judges' opinions. I have had to force myself to go back to it and had the realization that this is ridiculous and I should go give my attention to the other shortlisted titles before it's too late. I'm going to hang onto it in case someone changes my mind....
Profile Image for Alex.
633 reviews86 followers
October 23, 2020
I am not the only avid reader that has become somewhat exhausted with the genre of dystopian fiction. There are still really thoughtful and unique contributions to that kind of literature, but the prospect of climate catastrophe and inchoate fascism at the doorstep makes reading about the end game of our trajectory less appealing.

Yet with the Booker Prize longlisting the debut novel of Diane Cook, The New Wilderness, I was compelled to throw myself into the thick of a world, not that different than ours, imperiled and expiring. It was a bit of a rough start, a slow introduction to a group of pioneers of sorts choosing to leave the growing poisonous cities to fine requiem in the midst of a wild, unpopulated small tract of land. Modern amenities useless, the small community quickly adapted to past ways of survival, resorting to hunting without guns, foraging without agriculture, nomadic instead of stable. Although we had not arrived here by way of natural disaster or plague, the setting still felt somewhat derivative to the likes of Station Eleven, with Emily St. John Mandel ironically blurbing the book.

But there is a shift at some point. Without giving away spoilers, Cook decides to dive deeply into the idea of motherhood and its significance in a world where familial relations are loose or crumbling. The two central characters, Bea and Agnes, mother and daughter, are the perspectives that shape our understanding in this world, and while survival is an ever present constant, it is the relationship they have with one another and their feelings about being mother and daughter that shape their desires and actions.

There are bumpy moments at the beginning, I was not immediately captured by the voice of Bea, who provides the initial eyes into this world. But as I slowly grew accustomed to the pacing and plotting and the prose that felt accessible but definitely not sparse or pedestrian, I became entranced by the questions Cook is trying to grapple with. How would familial bonds, that appear so universal as motherhood, react to a world where the threads of those bonds grew weak and challenged by other loyalities, other relationships that became more important. How would those still placing meaning to familial bonds react to the changes to these social relationships that no longer carry the same importance? How would ideas and concepts of motherhood transform as the basic structures of society broke down?

I truly appreciate when fiction becomes a tool to explore larger questions of the human experience and although it doesn't always work in other books, The New Wilderness manages to pull it off. It is an engrossing read, beautifully written, well plotted, and with this huge injection of thematic considerations that don't feel forced.
Profile Image for Oscreads.
318 reviews157 followers
August 20, 2020
One of the literary awards that I religiously follow every year is the Man Booker Prize which is in my opinion the only literary prize that accumulates the best of the best literature that comes out every year. Literature that is not lazy but striking and timelessly beautiful. The New Wilderness by Diane Cook has been longlisted for The Man Booker Prize this year and when I tell you that this book is a force of a story I’m not lying to you. Set in the near future, this novel introduces readers to a haunting world that is not so hard to imagine. A world where breathing fresh air is a thing of the past unless you have been chosen to be apart of this new experiment that studies how humans interact with nature in the last bit of “Wilderness” left. Mostly following Bea who becomes involved with this experiment in order to save her daughter, Agnes, from the toxic pollution, the reader is immersed right from the first page into this Wilderness that is extraordinary but equally claustrophobic for those who are involved. What Cook has managed to do with this book is to give an examination of not only survival but this long lost relationship that humans have had with nature. I want to call this a sixth sense that is embedded in our human species. One can feel this through the way these characters interact within this new space. Their way of moving is different, their way of feeling is different, their way of thinking is different; it is a new language that feels strangely animalistic but so human.

Where Cook excels at is with these astonishing passages that describe nature in the most beautiful way. One gets lost in this imagery which gives life to this story. Additionally, this book is incredibly researched by giving readers a look into a future that remembers humans in its early stages. It answers this question of, what was humanity like when all it knew was this sublime but dangerous wilderness?

The New Wilderness by Diane Cook is a powerful work of fiction that I highly recommend. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone finished this 400-page book in one day because it is that intense and immersing. I completely loved everything about it and I was devastated that I finished so early. One of my favorite books of 2020 periodttttttt.
Profile Image for Lee.
339 reviews8 followers
August 13, 2020
(DNF 21% - rating based on the amount read)

I was very much looking forward to The New Wilderness having enjoyed a couple of Diane Cook’s stories. The premise is interesting, and who doesn’t want to read a bit of dystopia as the world continues to collapse? There are some promising moments early on, and hints at the potential for a building evocation of a believably fraught, chaotic America, a timely allegory, a new environmentally prescient slant on a familiar formula, as self-sabotaging dirty humans demolish their home and hasten their demise, or somehow save humanity and the planet, and so on.

Early on there’s a sensitively-wrought and powerful burial scene. Beyond that, very little of note.
(This particular scene ends with what felt like an unnecessarily odd, portentously clunky line: ‘The girl’s eyes clouded over with the clouds that rolled overhead.’ Later on, this further reference, which I had to read several times. ‘Even her belly, which had barely jutted with the baby, seemed to have immediately sunken.’ I confess: I still don’t understand it. Minutes earlier she’d delivered a stillborn child; now her belly, minus the dead child, is sunken. Why does this observation merit inclusion? But more importantly: Any reader might well thereafter justifiably start to worry about what other clunkers might be imminent.)

Trying to stay positive at this point: it’s reasonable that we can only appreciate the impossibility of fully understanding the mental state of the bereaved mother, or the world into which we’ve descended. Yet, soon enough, once other people become the focus – during scenes involving movement and interaction, as opposed to recollection and interiority – the book flounders.

Even as charitable readers assuming some kind of levelled-off catatonic state, we can’t for long ignore the glib carelessness of the author, who we begin to mistrust. Things simply happen, and we’re presumably meant to be either interested in them or disturbed by them, preferably both. Yet because nothing is done to achieve either state, we may start to wonder what’s in it for us, why we might want to spend further time reading on.

'“Maybe there will be some good packages at Post,” Glen murmured. “Maybe some good chocolate or something like that.”

Bea hmmed, but really she couldn’t eat things like that anymore without becoming ill, her body overwhelmed by what it used to crave in their old life. Instead of chocolate, she wished instead Glen would mention the child she’d just buried. Or she thought she wished for that. What would she say? What could she say that he didn’t already know? And did she really want to talk about it? No, she didn’t. And he knew that too.'

Rather than be unkind, I’ll just suggest that, during such passages as the latter, my mind began to wander, I began to find the characters muddled in a distracting way, and I didn’t understand the need for any of the words after ‘buried’, all of which seem not only superfluous but damaging to momentum.

Here’s the following paragraph:

'She looked at Glen, and in the firelight saw a look of hope play on his face. He knew chocolate couldn’t soothe such bewilderment, but maybe the suggestion could do what the chocolate was supposed to. She fit herself into his arms. “Yes, some chocolate would be nice,” she lied.’

Is it me or is this kind of inane? The New Wilderness is 416p long – would it have been much better pushed as a thriller with a lurid cover at 250?

I quickly hit a ceiling of tolerance with this kind of stuff, sadly. The events are dull, as though recounted uncertainly from a vantage that’s either hazy or matter of fact. If I’m meant to accept this as perspective, that’s one thing, but I just can’t read too much of it. The characters are ciphers. People perish, and you have to read back to make sure that’s what happened, but you feel no more second time around. It all feels increasingly farcical, happens so swiftly, and with so little purchase. People are story data deleted from the page, or tasked with further narrative use. Add to this prose that veers between decent and enjoyably terse – when there are no humans involved – and plodding exposition, unhappily mirroring a slow trek through the wilderness. If it’s going to be a slog for the reader, we have to care about the protagonist, and if the protagonist is passive and uninteresting, we can’t then care about her, and it’s going to be a struggle to feel anything about any of the unfolding events.

Of the fifth of the book I read I found it to be partly decent sentences and partly objectively bad and at times incomplete. It’s too often strangely blithe, passive, tentative and equivocal during moments ostensibly tense and dramatic. An attempt to ford a river that seems far fuller and stronger than on previous trips is recounted with apparent boredom, as though the stuff of negotiating life-threatening natural obstacles – a matter that would appear to be central to the book’s theme or themes – was something the author wanted to quickly pass over, and during which we meet for the first time characters whose fate we are then apparently meant to be invested in enough that their swift dispatch might be met with more than the shrug such scenes barely earn. Don’t we need at least one scene with Caroline, or Carl, or Juan, before they’re done for? Here is our introduction to Caroline (Carl and Juan are literally no more than names at this point, extras).

‘Caroline was their river-crossing scout. She was the most sure-footed. Had the lowest center of gravity. Her toes could grip like fingers. Beautiful toes wasted for years crammed into shoes in the City. She had learned the most about how water behaved. She was good at making sense of things that seemed erratic.

“Okay,” Caroline yelled over the rumble, her feet firm in the first foot of water, testing its pull, deciding whether to continue. “Rope.”’

We’re quickly told that Caroline is best equipped to lead the crossing with compressed, convenient attributions, but we have no idea who she is, and so we don’t care when things go wrong.

‘On this, the third spot, Caroline waded out halfway. From the bank, things looked promising. She paused, her head cocked slightly, like a coyote listening for the calls of the Wilderness—friend or foe, friend or foe. Her hands hovered over the whitewater, and it broke around her body and came together again behind her. Caroline turned her head toward them, her shoulders following, a hand turned palm up, about to signal something. She opened her mouth to speak just as the tip of a log surfaced where she stood, and with a terrible thwack and splash, Caroline was gone. Then the river, like an awakened bear, yanked the rope and Juan went down too. He tried to dig his heels in. He bellowed as the rope wrung his waist. Carl tried to pull on his rope section, not to help Juan but to slacken the rope to avoid the excruciating thing that was happening to Juan.

Bea stood back with the others, her hands crimped on Agnes’s shoulders. She thought about how, long ago, they always had someone stand by the rope holders with a knife to cut the rope in case something like this happened. But nothing like this ever happened, and Carl and Juan decided they were strong enough for a catastrophe like this. Besides, no one really wanted to be the one to cut the rope anyway. Still, at each river, they would have a lengthy discussion about whether to require a rope cutter or not. When they inevitably decided they needed one, no one would volunteer, so they would have to draw for it and the person who lost would shit themselves the whole time. And when nothing ever went wrong, they begrudged all that worry and work for nothing. So finally, they had decided, not that long ago, in fact, to stop mandating there be a rope cutter.

Clearly that had been the wrong decision.’

(There’s also a suddenly-apparent ‘Dr Harold’ whose ‘salves’ don’t work, but who nonetheless busies himself applying them to Juan’s wounds. When this happens, we barely know who Juan is, and we had no idea Dr Harold even existed. When did he turn up? Why didn’t we know about him? Where is he getting his salves from? Why is he applying them if they don’t work?)

Publishing the book in this form, when it really needed serious attention from even a mildly watchful editor, is a missed opportunity. There’s probably a really good much-shorter book in here, and Diane Cook is a decent writer. But I found it very unconvincing in part and even unfinished, too bogged-down by turgid, flippantly-derailing longueurs. The dialogue is often reminiscent of ‘Days of Our Lives’-esque melodrama. It’s a mess.

I certainly hope readers get more out of it than I did and can manage to overlook what I consider fatal problems. Whoever is responsible for its inclusion on the Booker Longlist (and you can only assume very few if any of the judges read all the books that make the initial cut) should be at least a little embarrassed. How could any self-respecting arbiter of literary judgement read the following without lamenting the too-hurried, perfunctory, affectless, almost meaninglessly freightless prose and conclude that it’s worthy of awards attention?

‘Debra and Val ran along the bank to see if Caroline resurfaced. She had, a few hundred feet downriver, her hair tangled in the branches of another log, her face submerged, her body limp. Her body and the log were snagged on something for a moment, and then were freed, speeding again down the river. There was no way to retrieve the rope. And not much to do for Caroline.

They took a moment to regroup, drink water, pass a pouch of jerky. Debra said a nice thing about Caroline and how being their river scout had been essential to their survival here and that she would be missed. “She taught me so much about water,” Debra said, looking quite shook. She and Caroline had been close. Bea looked around at the faces of the group, working their feelings out. Personally, Bea thought Caroline had been aloof, though she kept that feeling to herself. She chewed on a knuckle impatiently while she waited for the ritualized silent moment to end.

After all that, they argued about Caroline’s last intention. She’d turned and opened her mouth to tell them something about the crossing. But tell them what? Had her hand begun to signal a thumbs-up or thumbs-down before the log smacked her? What had her facial expression been before she’d grimaced in painful surprise? In the end they decided the spot was still the most promising place to cross, despite Caroline’s demise. Juan took over as the river scout and ventured in without a rope. Close to the middle, he turned and gave a thumbs-up. Single file they carefully shuffled out, children clinging to the backs of adults. It turned out to be quite a good spot to cross, and if it hadn’t been for that log, they all would have gotten to the opposite bank easily. Poor Caroline. She had bad luck, Bea decided.’


‘When they saw the box fly and open against a rock, they had gasped, though no one had gasped when Thomas had begun falling, or as he continued to fall. No one was that close to him, except Caroline, his wife. He’d never taken to the group. He wasn’t a joiner, he’d explained pleasantly when they all first met.

The teacup flew out into the air from its safe velvet bed, the gold rim glinting in the sun, and some of them who were close enough tried to reach out to catch it. Even Thomas reached for it mid-tumble rather than reaching for a handhold that might stop his fall. The cup came to rest in pieces, the porcelain dust settling like bone ash across the rock. Some gathered small shards and put them in a skin pouch as a new keepsake. But those shards cut them when they rummaged for anything, and eventually they were deposited discreetly across the landscape they walked, the shards small enough to disappear in the dirt.

Of course, poor Thomas had continued to fall, and presumably he had died. A couple of people climbed down partway, but they couldn’t see him and he didn’t respond to their shouts. So the Community took a moment to say some nice things about him and console Caroline, and then they walked on. They didn’t perform many rituals anymore, in large part because the teacup was gone. It was true that rituals took time and effort, and the more time they spent in the Wilderness, the less they wanted to celebrate. At first, every river crossing had been notable, but now they barely wanted to mark the first of the year. Regardless, Bea knew that without the teacup there was simply no ceremonial feeling. They were just drinking tea. But still, no one spoke ill of Thomas afterward. If he’d survived, they wouldn’t have given him the silent treatment around the fire. No one blamed him for losing the cup, at least not out loud. Bea wished they’d remember that now.’


‘“But . . . ?”

“I might have waited just a tad longer.”

“Well, fuck, Glen. Did I just murder Caroline?”

“Oh no, no, no,” he said patiently, pulling her down to their bedding. “Caroline was dead the second that log attacked her.”

“Then what does the timing matter?”

Glen shrugged. “I guess it doesn’t. But if she was already dead, then what was the rush?”

“But Juan.”

Glen waved his hand. “Juan was always going to be fine.”

She stamped her foot, and Glen put his hands back on her shoulders. “Look, Juan was fine. Caroline was lost. But that rope wasn’t. Not until you cut it. People just need a minute.” He paused, then shrugged. “It was a really good rope.”’


‘“Caroline. We lost her in River 9.”



His pen stopped. “Now you’re sure? Because she could just be zipping along not far from here.”

“We’re sure.”

“Because River 9’s fast right now but not too cold. And below here it gets slow again.”

“It was a log. She’s definitely gone.”

“Ah, that’s too bad. I liked her.”

Bea couldn’t believe she had to hear about Caroline again. She hit the counter angrily. “Seriously?”

Ranger Bob took a step back, startled. “What?”

“I’m so sick of hearing about Caroline,” she grunted.

Ranger Bob’s jaw dropped.

“I mean, why are we still talking about her?” She chewed on a finger distractedly. She shook her head in disgust. Caroline? Honestly, fuck Caroline.’
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for David.
590 reviews124 followers
September 5, 2020
Desperate to escape a blighted urban wasteland, guided by the misguided, a band of roving "study participants" meets with all manner of ill fortune in the great outdoors. These often hapless citizens (simpletons?) roam a dwindling wilderness. Natural resources are increasingly scarce and climate change threatens what remains. Common sense is in very short supply and those most in need of it have joined forces because, regardless of environment, misery apparently does love company.

Let The Bungler Games commence!

I enjoyed this book immensely. For all the wrong reasons. It elicited the same wicked sense of fascination one gets from watching low-budget, B-rated horror movies like Plan 9 From Outer Space or The Brain That Wouldn't Die. The narrative style - which is heavy-handed and overly earnest - would normally cause a lot of eye rolling, but I could not look away long enough to do that. It was too awful; too deliciously problematic. Contradictions, inconsistencies, and fanciful representations of natural science pop up more often than contraband jackrabbits.

As depicted by Ms. Cook, The New Wilderness is such a magical place. You can feel your child's heart beating through the palm of their hand as they clutch your cold ankle. You can hear the sound of a man scratching at his scruffy face over the roar of his truck engine and despite the wind howling in your ears. You can smell a fish that has freshly launched itself out of a river, and harvest toxic clams just by tossing in an unbaited crab pot. You can fully recover from a chronic respiratory condition that had left you bedridden and coughing blood onto your pillow simply by entering this rugged realm, walking through its dust storms and breathing in its pollen. So. Much. Magic. It's all just a unicorn trot away.

Obviously my reaction to this novel, though honest, is not the one its author intended. Tragic circumstances, clearly meant to evoke sympathy and concern from the reader, often made me laugh out loud. There were deaths so absurd - and so numerous - that the Agatha Christie estate should sue for a share in the royalties. (In fact there is a nod in that direction when Cook opens one chapter with the phrase, "And then there were twenty." Certainly an alternative title for the book would be Ten Little Idiots.) It didn't help matters that some of the characters literally bite the dust before they figuratively bite the dust.

Am I a bad person? Perhaps. Is this a bad book? Yes. Yes it is. And I'm going to recommend it to all my equally twisted book-loving friends so I can laugh all over again with them. In the meantime, I shall console myself with a few sacred hours spent re-watching Killer Klowns From Outer Space and Reanimator.
Profile Image for Paul Fulcher.
Author 2 books1,171 followers
September 19, 2020
“Get me”— she panted— “out of here.”

A book seemingly inspired by I'm a Celebrity, and with the same lack of aspirations to artistic quality.

I did have hopes early on that this might be a satire on the colonialist settler myth:

They talked about it in epic terms around the fire for seasons afterward. It was their origin story, how they’d finally come to be a part of this land. It had felt like they’d accomplished something impossible. Like they had discovered a new world.

But seemingly this novel is intended to be taken seriously.

That a jury could read over 150 novels and then decide this is on the shortlist of the "finest in fiction" is rather staggering.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,695 reviews14.1k followers
September 15, 2020
Dnf. Can't get into this, not the plot nor characters. It's on the booker long list though, so others must be having an easier time connecting.
Profile Image for Eric Anderson.
653 reviews3,203 followers
November 15, 2020
Given the urgency of the climate crisis and the difficulties of changing our way of living to save the planet, it's no wonder that we can easily envision a time when nature has been plundered of its resources and humans are scrambling to survive. Diane Cook dramatises this conflict in “The New Wilderness” not by showing the fall of society but by presenting a group of people who've reverted to a nomadic life where survival is truly a day to day struggle. The majority of the population lives in an overpopulated and smoggy city where the air is so toxic children are often seriously ill. Because Bea's five year old daughter Agnes frequently coughed up blood and the doctors had no way of treating her, this mother and her partner Glen took the radical step to form a group of volunteers to venture out into the rural landscape which had been abandoned due to pollution. But this experiment is strictly regulated by the government and its rangers who study and regulate their existence. They're not allowed to settle in any location or leave any physical impact on the rewilding of the environment. The novel begins at a point where this group has been struggling to navigate this wilderness for some time and life has come to mean very little beyond the animal instinct to survive.

The trouble I had with this story is that I found it hard to buy into the structure and workings of its society. Dystopian fiction must build a plausible scenario through which its drama can proceed. Even if this isn't explicitly laid out there have to be logical indications of how society has come to this point. The negative impact humans are having on the environment is very real and with urban populations becoming so dense I can see why the author has set her novel up this way. But I struggled to get a sense for how society was being governed, the ways in which the wilderness was being so strictly regulated and why the volunteer group adhered to their rules. Of course, one of the elements of suspense is that there is a sinister government plan occurring in the background but I just didn't believe in the overall structure of how this society had come to operate. So I found it a challenge to emotionally invest in the plot or its characters. I also felt the plodding detail of their day to day lives wasn't engaging enough to make me feel the desperation and tension of their situation. There were occasionally moving scenes between the characters and creative observations about the hidden workings of the natural world, but overall the novel felt a little overlong and was a bit of a slog to get through.

Read my full review of The New Wilderness by Diane Cook on LonesomeReader
Profile Image for Jerrie.
985 reviews127 followers
September 18, 2020
In this book a mother and her sick daughter leave "the City" for "the Wilderness" in an effort to make the daughter healthier. It is part of an experiment to let a group of people live in the wilderness. The purposes of this experiment or the driving forces behind it aren't explained well in the book. Also unclear is the problem with the city and why it was making the children sick. There is a lot of description of ways of surviving in the wilderness, but many of these are not unique. Overall, I enjoyed the characters, but was often confused by the situations they were in. 2.5 stars
Profile Image for Katie Long.
267 reviews56 followers
September 25, 2020
I don’t disagree with most of the criticism of this book, but somehow, I didn’t hate it. Yes, cliched characters and inconsistencies abound and the narrative seems to be plodding in a circle, much like the characters, but the mother/daughter dynamic kept me interested. The idea of resenting the selflessness that is often expected of motherhood, and having a primal love for someone you don’t like all that much, kept me engaged in a story I would otherwise have lost interest in early on.
Profile Image for Renee Godding.
584 reviews559 followers
September 19, 2020
This book only came to my attention because of its Booker prize nomination. Frankly, I don’t get the hype. It was an interesting premise that felt like it didn’t quite know where it wanted to go, resulting in a disjointed whole with some major pacing issues. Resorted to skim reading to finish the final third.
More thoughts/full review to come.
Profile Image for Neil.
1,007 reviews625 followers
August 5, 2020
The 2020 Booker longlist contains three books that I had already read before it was announced. It also contains two books that I had already decided I didn’t want to read. Of the remaining eight books, three were on my radar to read soon but five were completely new to me. I decided I would start my reading of the list by exploring some of the ones I had been unaware of. The New Wilderness is one of those five. It is also one of the relatively high number of debut novels on the list (and by one of the very high number of US-based authors). Although it is a debut novel, the author has previously written a collection of short stories which I have not read but which I picked up some information about during the course of reading this novel.

The Goodreads description of this book is very detailed. Rather too detailed, I think. It reads as though it is describing the set up for the book but it actually goes all the way through to the ending of the book. The book begins with a dramatic scene in which a woman, alone in the wilderness, gives birth to a stillborn child. She then returns to her family and the community of which she is part. What follows is the story of a group of people making long and seemingly pointless journeys to different parts of the wilderness. Unfortunately, for me, “long and pointless journeys” is a harsh but fairly accurate description of the plot. It felt to me as though the book was as unsure as its protagonists about where it was going and why for at least 200 pages, probably even more. And when it found itself again it seemed to rush towards its conclusion very quickly.

This is a dystopian novel in which an unexplained combination of climate change and pollution from over-population has led to a country where the population has almost completely migrated to The City leaving large areas uninhabited. The City is a harmful environment where many children struggle to stay healthy. Rumours abound of a place called the Private Lands where the wealthy live a life of luxury. Our protagonists are offered the chance of a fresh start by taking part in a study where humans are introduced to an area called The Wilderness, under strict rules. From the mention of pinyon trees, I sort of assumed the country is North America and The Wilderness is in the southwest of that country, but this is never specifically mentioned. It is a very strange set up that never quite made sense to me with its Leave No Trace policy and Rangers who drop in and out of the story policing the movements of the group.

It is also a novel that looks at mother-daughter relationships and I think I found this aspect more convincing than the dystopia.

Overall, I have to acknowledge that I might not have completed this book were it not for the fact that it is Booker long listed. And I also have to admit that, because it is Booker long listed, I am probably applying harsher criteria when reviewing and rating the book. The Booker tag raises expectations and I wasn’t sure about the book for too long. This is one of the things that often seems unfair when the Booker judges select debut novels: an author has their first book judged by people expecting to read the best English language books of the year. This is not a bad book, but it is not, for me, a great book.

My thanks to Oneworld for an ARC via NetGalley.
Profile Image for Meike.
1,474 reviews2,309 followers
October 28, 2020
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020
The main idea of the book sounds amazing, but the novel suffers from three major flaws: The whole set-up makes no sense, there is not enough intellectual depth, and the character development is more or less non-existent. Cook intends to write a climate dystopia in which a group of people leaves the urban areas to live in the wilderness. The whole endeavor is described to be an experiment orchestrated by the authorities - but to what end, especially considering that the group is regularly visiting checkpoints and receiving mail and parcels, thus creating a situation that does in no way represent what it means to survive in the wilderness without interference from the civilized world? The reserach aim of this experiment is pretty dubious.

Then, the author apparently wants to investigate human urges unrestrained by the rules of civilization, or, as The Guardian excitedly puts it: "One of her most compelling concerns in The New Wilderness is the corrosive force of individualism, and how pedestrian the human tendency to destroy really is – how the hardwired urge to self-preserve erodes the possibility of fellowship and forward thinking." People who have seen a school from the inside or have generally wondered why laws exist have probably heard about Thomas Hobbes vs. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Cook ponders this continuum on a very superficial level. There is nothing new or challenging to see here.

And then there's the pacing and the characters, and both aspects are just not rendered intriguing enough. It's hard to tell some of those people apart as they are not distinctively drawn. Plus there are really bad sex scenes - granted, I've just read Kink: Stories, which was envisoned by experts in the field, but Cook just doesn't offer enough psychological depth. Above that, the whole thing could have been more concise.

I wish I could have loved this more, because I am convinced the story has potential, but it wasn't thought out and developed well enough. As my GR friend Roman Clodia has rightfully stated, the novel is a cross between "The Hunger Games" and "...I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!" - but it could have been so much more.
Profile Image for Jessica Woodbury.
1,586 reviews1,986 followers
July 30, 2020
Yes, this is a book about life on the land in a dystopian future. But really, mostly, it's a book about mothers and daughters. When you take away all the trappings of daily life and take it down to just survival in a small group, all the ways in which the needs of one and the needs of the other conflict are suddenly bright and harsh. It is often not the case that what is best for the child is best for the parent, and vice versa. And when everything you do is seen, when it is impossible to take space, a relationship can become deeply comlpicated.

At the end, while I really enjoyed the wilderness world Cook built and the way she brought it to life, it is the story of Bea and Agnes that really sticks with you. Yes, Bea wants to protect her daughter, but in such a harsh world how to do that is a vastly different question than the one we're used to. Agnes relies on her mother, but growing up in such a different place than her mother did means they are inevitably going to see the world in utterly different ways. Their problems may not be all that similar to the ones parents face in the developed world, but the feelings are recognizable. The book takes a turn part way through that is a real raising of the stakes, I wasn't sure if it would work after that. But to my surprise it got even better.

It took me a little while to get into this, but I was glad I did. The prose and I did not always connect, though this is likely a me problem and not a book problem. There were plenty of times when the pacing was right on, I just struggled a bit when it was slower. The emotional stakes made it more than worth it.
Profile Image for Traci Thomas.
527 reviews9,509 followers
January 6, 2021
Cook is a strong writer. She crafts a world and a set of rules beautifully. The first 1/3 and last 1/3 are stellar. The middle drags. Overall really left me lots to think about in terms of humans mark on nature and the struggle of living without the assistance of technologies we’ve become reliant on. Also mother daughter stuff..but that was less interesting to me.
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