Books that try to represent large scale violence and trauma through the quiet, complicated workings of human interactions have been around for decades. Such storytelling — where the world-building is in the background and the greater focus is on the characters trying to survive the dangers of that world — has greater possibility of resonating with the reader. Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness is just such a book, where the world is falling apart in the background, but the relationship of a mother and daughter gives the narrative its strength.

As climate change and overpopulation gradually wreak planetary destruction, our heroine, Bea, takes the first step that sets up the premise of the whole book. With a five-year-old daughter slowly dying from an incurable disease, Bea — and 18 other volunteers — go to live in the Wild, a portion of the globe set apart from the unnamed City, with the hope that nature might be the cure she so desperately needs for her child.

The Wild is an area of the Earth still untouched, untainted by the presence of humans, and the volunteers are given strict orders by an arbitrary group of law enforcers, called Rangers, to ensure that no trace of human existence is left in any of the areas they inhabit.

On its own, the premise is weak and full of holes that readers can poke through with ease. While the City, full of smog and death, is swarming with humans, vast portions of the Wild are open to the Rangers and yet uninhabited, for obscure reasons that are never explained.

The book’s strength, with its microscopic focus on the lives of Bea and the other volunteers, doesn’t help readers see the bigger picture, with the politics or the decision-making ostensibly going on in the background. This, in turn, reduces the believability of the world the author is trying to set up, and forces us to question whether the situation is as dire as the solution suggests.

It’s good, then, that the relationships Cook focuses on have the strength to balance the story’s weaknesses. Bea is a complex character, nurturing and, at the same time, frustrated, overflowing with love for her daughter and yet desperate to be her own person.

A 2020 Booker Prize-shortlisted debut juxtaposes dystopian fiction about climate change with contemporary relationships, but leaves readers questioning the world-building in the background

In fact, she might be one of the few female characters who are written with grace and empathy, an attempt to not paint the mother as a self-sacrificing creature who ignores her own desires for her children, but rather one who is plagued by self-doubt, can sometimes be selfish and is mostly just trying to do the right thing.

It is possible that Bea’s portrayal as a woman who sometimes resents her own child, while also making the sacrifices required, might bother those readers who expect the mother figure to bear everything with patient stoicism. But it is a far more realistic and nuanced portrayal, and might be considered one of the finer points of the story itself.

On that note, Agnes, the daughter who is growing up with the telling of the tale, is also an intriguing character. Her way of looking at the world — as a person who has mostly grown up in the wilderness and doesn’t have much context for City life — had the possibility of being disastrous, but ended up being the saving grace of the story. Amazed at why new people in the wilderness act in manners so bizarre, she finds the natural way of living an obvious and easy thing to understand and cannot comprehend why others cannot easily track animal prints on the ground, or predict weather changes from the sky.

As the narrative unrolls and more people appear in the wilderness, she encounters people her own age, who are as amazed at Agnes’s behaviour as she is by their eccentricity and their ways of speaking. This clash of lives represents not just the idea of the disparity between those who live in the City and in the Wild, but also attempts to tackle the question of how much where we live moulds who we are.

A huge part of where Cook’s characters live, and thus the people they are becoming, is rooted in the natural world and its expectations of the people who dare to live in the wild. Climate change and its consequent effects is a current reality. From melting glaciers to sub-zero temperatures and rising sea levels, a huge portion of the globe is already facing a future that shows a bleak picture indeed.

Cook’s attempt to bring this sort of dystopian fiction into the realms of contemporary storytelling, by focusing her writing on the interactions of the people, is a smart move, albeit one that might leave readers questioning the world-building in the background. A general degradation of the environment does form the backdrop for why our characters take such drastic steps to get away from the City. But, since we spend more time watching their various grievances play out against each other, the environmental aspect of the whole book can get lost in the process.

This is a shame, since it’s now more urgent than ever before that more books treat climate change as a worry that is current and present rather than as one that can firmly be slotted into the genre of science fiction.

Then there’s the weak ending, which doesn’t do justice to the set-up of the story. Given that so much of the book is dedicated to showing us just how exactly this ragtag bunch of misfits are surviving together, without any of the basic amenities available to humans in the civilised world, there aren’t nearly enough pages dedicated to discussing what will eventually happen to this group, and where their future lies.

The attempt — feeble, at best — at winding things up seems rushed. More pages would have been good to neatly wrap up the intricate build-up of the book’s first three quarters. As it is, we’re left with an ending that leaves much to be desired, and tries to quickly resolve issues that only a thorough exploration in a hundred more pages would have managed.

Shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, The New Wilderness is Cook’s first full-length novel, and second book after her short story collection Man vs. Nature. Clearly, there’s a thematic alignment in her work and, to be fair, there’s a certain necessity of looking at nature through different lenses these days, given how thoroughly our lives have been upended by a pandemic in the last year.

The environment’s future is bound tightly with the lives of humans everywhere, and fiction has a responsibility to show how dangerous it will be for us all if we don’t take this relationship and its demands seriously.

Here’s hoping that more books attempt to bind the complexity of human lives to the fate of the Earth, and that they not only entertain, but also increase our awareness of the things we do that affect the planet on which we live.

The reviewer is an editor of English coursebooks.
She tweets @anumshaharyar

The New Wilderness
By Diane Cook
Oneworld, UK
ISBN: 978-0861540372
398pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 20th, 2021

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