In The New Wilderness (2020), the City is over-populated and polluted, with smog so thick that it’s killing Bea’s daughter Agnes. Their last resort is to enter The Wilderness State, as part of an experiment to determine if a small community of humans can exist in the wilderness harmoniously. Mankind has never been allowed to enter this expanse of untamed land, until now.
Diane Cook begins The New Wilderness as she means to go on, with the harrowing and raw image of Bea discarding her still-born child, Madeleine, in the ground. Soon after, you’re hit with the reality that the wilderness is situated within a stark world, nearby an overdeveloped metropolis and a dangerous climate. The wilderness is in fact the only remaining protected land in the world. The humans in The Community are in survival mode, holding shockingly little thought to those they lose along the way – that’s just life in the wilderness, you learn.
As the book continues, and once readers are adjusted to its tone, this wild Community are revealed to be both primal in their exploits and surprisingly modern (particularly when it comes to their social politics). Cook raises questions about toxic motherhood, in Bea’s motherhood and her struggle to understand it – which draws readers into The New Wilderness with no restraint. Bea appears to be loving and caring towards Agnes but is at times, in horrifying moments, driven by her own needs that trump her maternal nature. It’s a relief and a shock when Cook shifts us to the perspective of Agnes, recasting Bea in an entirely different light.
The discordance between the recognisable elements of this world, be they social or physical, and life in the wilderness is delightfully strange. A Booker Prize shortlister, no doubt for Cook’s eloquent prose and vivid world-building, The New Wilderness is fearless and absorbing, making us ponder whether humans will ever be able to exist alongside nature.
By Rory McNeill.
Evolution has taken a step backwards in Future Home of a Living God (2017). Women everywhere are giving birth to children that are humans in their primitive form. The often celebrated nature of pregnancy is flipped on its head, as the government maliciously seeks out pregnant women. Offering rewards to anyone who turns them in, they are desperate to find babies who are like humans as we know them today. Terrible fates fall upon babies who are not.
The story is told from the perspective of Cedar Hawk Songmaker, an Indigenous woman who is four months pregnant when this crisis starts to unfold. She writes diary entries partially to document her pregnancy and talk to her unborn child, but also to document the decaying world around her. It is a story filled with hardship, loss and fear, but also family, love and determination. The book itself speaks to themes of female agency, biology, reproductive rights and evolution. Louise Erdrich is an author with Native American heritage and explores Indigenous cultures and relationships in all her work, FHOTLG being no exception. She is a master storyteller and I cannot recommend her work enough.
By Isabel Hassan.