Cumbria Times
A Voice of the Free Press
James Goodall
Features Writer
1:00 AM 19th October 2023

Review : Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness

Image by Annie Spratt from Unsplash
Image by Annie Spratt from Unsplash
Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness is an eco-dystopia, which asks us to take one last look at our beautiful world before we lose it forever.

The 'new wilderness' itself may as well be re-termed 'the last wilderness', for it is the only one of its kind that remains. A group of individuals have been authorised to reside there on a nomadic basis. They are from 'the City' where overpopulation and a paucity of resources have reached such extremes that the situation has become detrimental, if not fatal, to human health.

The central protagonist Bea’s motive for joining the group is her daughter, Agnes. Bea hopes the relocation will cure Agnes of a respiratory illness instigated by the City’s high pollution levels.

But the Wilderness State isn’t quite the Shangri-La it’s cracked up to be; it’s a harsh environment with an unforgiving climate, affording as many opportunities for death as the city they’ve fled. Indeed, in the opening chapters, one of their number is brutally scratched off the dramatis personae whilst attempting to cross a perilous river.

Every minute in the new wilderness is a struggle for survival. The group endures hardships of all kinds from extreme weather conditions to food and water shortages, as well as natural disasters – not least the continuous bouts of in-fighting that ensue as certain members vie for leadership.

There are no amenities, infrastructures or supports of any kind. It’s just them and Mother Nature. The group spends its days living off the land, hunting and developing skills for survival. But they can’t fix to a single location. They have to keep moving so as to leave no trace of their presence and ensure the wilderness isn’t despoiled in any way by their activity. They’re moved on periodically by a team of rangers who monitor the Wilderness State. The rangers don’t offer them any support in their exploits; they simply direct them to their next destination, which can often be hundreds of miles away and take months at a time to reach. They provide the group with maps, but these tend to be empty pages – the idea being they find their own way and fill in the blanks as they go! To this end, the story becomes a journal of their progress through the Wilderness State – physically as well as spiritually.

Readers of dystopian fiction may feel ambivalent towards The New Wilderness following an initial reading. Certainly, it’s under-seasoned in dystopian terms. Though billed as such, it lacks many of the tropes of this genre. We don’t spend any time in the City or learn fully to what extent civilisation as we know it has declined. References to the horrors therein are made obliquely through flashbacks and scattered descriptions. As a consequence, the dynamics between the City and the new Wilderness State are never sharply drawn.

But arguably these omissions are to the novel’s credit. Whilst some of its contemporaries – particularly in the current YA genre – are still propagating these models, The New Wilderness makes for a pleasant diversion, scrapping what we’ve seen many times before. It differs from other dystopian or post-apocalyptic reads in that it’s less about what we’ve lost as what we’re on the cusp of losing. To this end, it’s a more contemplative and transcendental piece. There are no contrived sentences or turns of phrase. Instead, it adopts a more languorous pace, as though taking its time to sit and enjoy a moment in the beautiful surroundings it describes. This de-weeding of the narrative pathway helps us reach the novel’s higher truths more easily.

The New Wilderness is a tapestry of different thematic strands. In addition to its environmental concerns, it is also a coming-of-age story. Bea’s daughter, Agnes, is growing up fast in the Wilderness State. She is a child of nature, struggling to survive in its harsh surroundings. She has limited memories of the City, her only knowledge being of how to live as a cave girl. Agnes steps up to the plate when Bea temporarily exits the Wilderness State after learning her mother has passed away. She becomes a scout, pathfinder, and leader, 'doing in the figure of a lamb the feats of a lion', to quote the Bard. New arrivals from the City are perturbed by her feral nature – be it her primal approach to sex, or the way she butchers animals for food. Indeed, newcomers are shocked to learn that many of the social mores of the City have been dispensed with in the Wilderness State, and more animalistic patterns of behaviour have become prevalent. Agnes’s plotline isn’t fully developed, however. It certainly doesn’t follow the Dickensian model, where we would expect to see Agnes’s full transition from woodland babe to empowered leader. Her character development in this respect is somewhat premature.

The story also lacks a principal antagonist besides the cruelty of nature and the struggle for survival itself. The only source of danger, in addition to natural disasters, is a lingering threat of excommunication from the Wilderness State. If the group fails to adhere to the rangers’ rules, back to the City they go. The rangers themselves don’t qualify as antagonists, coming across more as hard-hearted and unhelpful prefects. We never know for sure if they’re supporters of the group. If anything, the rangers serve more as glorified scene shifters, appearing periodically to move the group on, and the story along with it.

In many ways, The New Wilderness is a pertinent read and a well-timed wake-up call. There has never been a better time to sit up and take note of the messages it imparts than in our era of climate anxiety, and with our current race for net zero. But there are no bombastic eco statements or histrionic pronouncements of doom. The green messages Cook imparts are subtler than that.

The New Wilderness helps you appreciate the delicate balance between ourselves and our natural surroundings, as well as the dangers that lie ahead if we don’t play our part. It’s a story that reminds you our time with Mother Nature is fleeting – a sentiment many of us can no doubt relate to, for example when we tread one of our favourite beauty spots, only to find the fringes encroached upon by some monstrous housing development. Reading The New Wilderness may well make you want to play Joni Mitchell’s 'Big Yellow Taxi' on hard rotation! It certainly pressed home to me how our time with planet Earth is running short and, to a degree, how we're hastening its demise. Or to paraphrase J. B. Priestley, maybe the world itself isn’t going to hell in a hand cart; 'perhaps we get worse, that’s all'.

The New Wilderness is published by Oneworld Publications.