Actually, I finished reading The New Wilderness two weeks ago and am only just sitting down to write this review. My delay is a mixture of the semester starting, me being distracted by the work that pays bills, and not being super enthusiastic about this book overall. Now, don’t get me wrong, this one is another strong debut novel that earns its place in a field of peers. It’s complex and timely in its treatment of the alternatives to a life dependent on burning fossil fuels.
Like Doshi’s Burnt Sugar and Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, The New Wilderness is also about a beguiling mother who makes questionable choices for her fierce and independent, though vulnerable child. It too is about navigating parenthood amidst an apocalypse of sorts. Or put another way, The New Wilderness is the book of the group that made me attentive to the ways the others are about parenting amidst apocalypse. (There are a lot of books about parenting in this longlist field). In Burnt Sugar the apocalypse is divorce; in Shuggie Bain, it’s alcoholism. In Cook’s novel it is a climate crisis that sees air quality in the city diminished by industrial pollution to levels that make children sick and die. Bea’s only choice in keeping her ailing daughter Agnes alive, is to agree — reluctantly — to leave the city with Agnes and her husband Glen as participants of a wilderness survival study.
In this study supposedly led by Glen, the family is a part of a pilot program that tracks how humans interact with nature in a cordoned off Wilderness state, where they have strict orders from rangers to live as nomads, keep moving, and leave no trace of their presence behind in the landscape. When the novel opens three years into their lived as wilderness nomads, Agnes is better — hardy even, but Bea is burying a miscarried baby, Glen doesn’t have a firm grasp on the group’s leadership, the group has been in one spot for too long, and the study is falling apart. The group, once 20 people strong, loses members to hypothermia, a cougar, a climbing accident, and within the first few pages a log in a rushing river. Against the backdrop of vividly drawn wilderness scenery, the novel unfolds a suspenseful story of will they stay in the Wilderness State or will they take their chances back in the toxic city, what exactly is the deal with the hostile rangers, and is life in the wilderness the unmaking of Bea’s relationship with Agnes.
This process of reading the Booker Longlist has taught me that I have stronger preferences than I realized though. Post apocalypse isn’t among my preferences. Nonetheless, Cook’s descriptions of breathtaking wilderness scenery are gorgeous and impressively researched to resemble the Oregon landscape the narrative is modeled from. It portrayal of the dual power of nature to sustain and to maim is well worth a trek through this novel about the not too far away future of climate crisis.