Audiobook review – “The New Wilderness” by Diane Cook

In my final book review of last year I wrote of my delight that Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain won the 2020 Booker Prize. It was one of only two of the shortlisted books I managed to complete before the prize winner was announced (the other one I read, Burnt Sugar, I liked somewhat less and have also reviewed here). I had another of the shortlisted books ‘in progress’ at the time the winner was announced, The New Wilderness by first-time author Diane Cook, which I listened to on audio. It was utterly compelling and was beautifully read by Stacey Glemboski. It reminded me very much of a previously shortlisted book, The Overstory, by Richard Power, which was nominated in 2018 and remains one of the best books I have read in recent years.

The New Wilderness is set in what seems, frighteningly, a not too distant future in America. Environmental decline has wreaked havoc on ordinary life, such that urban living is barely sustainable, and there are few alternative spaces left for citizens to inhabit. The government has authorised a research project to allow a small group of twenty people to inhabit one of the last remaining wild areas, but there are strict rules that they must observe, including having no contact with the outside world, and leaving no trace of their habitation on the environment, which means not staying in one place too long or building a camp. (The irony is not lost.) The group is closely monitored by Rangers, who enforce the regulations, and the group is required to attend stations every few months to register births, deaths and significant events. The story is told through the eyes of the leading character, Bea, whose partner Glen was one of the academics leading the research. Bea had volunteered for the project in order to remove her daughter Agnes from the city which was killing her slowly. Agnes suffered from a range of unnamed conditions which have been cured by life in the wilderness. Agnes is about ten or eleven when we meet her although no-one has really been keeping track; time is marked by seasonal change not the calendar.

When the book opens the group has already been living in the wilderness for some years. It opens dramatically with the deaths of two members of the group in a hazardous river crossing, in which a valuable rope is also lost. What is immediately striking to the reader is how the loss of the rope is mourned nearly as much as the loss of the companions, indicating how the group has become more focused on survival than finer human emotions. Further death occurs early on when Bea gives birth, alone in the forest, to a dead baby, which she buries quietly and away from the rest of the group. The dead child will be a recurring motif throughout the book; Bea left the city to save her daughter, and lost another because she was in the wilderness.

Life is extremely challenging and there are clearly tensions in the group, which the author takes great care to illustrate in skilful detail, particularly over ‘leadership’ – Glen, as one of the project’s initiators, was once looked to as a kind of informal leader. Glen becomes sick, however, and another of the group members, the strong more dominant alpha male-type, Carl, sees an opportunity to weigh in. Bea has also emerged as a strong leader in the group and Carl, in an attempt to fully oust Glen from his unofficial position, goes about bringing her to his side as well. Here the community is disintegrating; it’s like Lord of the Flies with grown-ups. Further chaos ensues when a small group of newcomers – city refugees who were on a ‘waiting list’ to join the original group in the wilderness – is encountered. To anyone who knows anything about group psychology – forming, storming, norming and all that – this is fascinating. It is also fascinating to see the way the two distinct groups spar with one another, with whom individual members place their loyalties, and how readily the original population integrates with the ‘immigrants’. There are also more young people among the newcomers, teenagers, and Agnes, now a teenager herself, has the opportunity the develop relationships with people her own age for the first time. But the differences between them in terms of their life experiences to date makes it difficult for Agnes to navigate her way among them. With the teenagers a further faction in the group emerges.

Author Diane Cook

What the author creates in The New Wilderness is a microcosm of our problematic human society, where Utopia cannot exist, where the human condition leads to inevitable decline. The wilderness is not the ideal society that the participants hoped it would be; yes, it is ‘natural’ and (mostly) unpolluted, but it is also brutal, and even the most idealistic among them hanker after a shower, some easy food, a haircut. Most strikingly however, is the failure of the community, socially, although the strict policing of the rules by the overweening and power-drunk Rangers (some more than others) does not help.

I have only scratched the surface of the book in this review – it is a highly complex novel and I fear I have not done it justice. It is a dystopian novel, which predicts a bleak future (do not read this if you want something uplifting!) where the opportunity to influence climate change has passed. It is also a novel about motherhood; Bea left the city to save her daughter’s life. In the middle of the novel she also flees the wilderness for a time (abandoning her daughter) when she learns that her own mother has died. The mother who begged her not to go.

All of the Booker-shortlisted novels I have read so far are about mothers or motherhood. Is that a coincidence?

Highly recommended.

Book review – “The Girl with the Louding Voice” by Abi Daré

I chose this book for my 2020 Facebook Reading Challenge in November and totally forgot to post my review! What happened to me just before Christmas, I don’t know! The theme in November was a book from the new decade (we had something from the last decade in January) and I chose this book because it had caught my eye a few times and because it has been an international success for its first-time author. Abi Daré was born in Lagos, but now lives in the UK having studied for her degree here. The book is dedicated to her mother, the first professor of taxation in Nigeria, whom she thanks for the sacrifices she made for her daughter’s education. The importance of education for girls is a theme that dominates the novel. (If you read no further please go to the stats at the end of this post.)

The book is narrated by Adunni, a fourteen year old girl from a small village. She lives with her father and two brothers (one older, one younger), their mother having died from an unnamed illness, but is likely to have been tuberculosis. Adunni still grieves for her beloved mother, who always promised her daughter that she would receive an education. Adunni’s father does not think the same way; the family is poor and, in order to pay their rent, he decides to sell his daughter to an older man in another village, who seems to have a penchant for young wives. Adunni will be his third wife and her job is to produce a son for him as soon as possible. The elder wife bore the first daughter and is wicked and jealous and beats Adunni. The second wife, Khadija, is also very young and has already borne three daughters and is pregnant with her fourth child, whom she hopes will be a boy. Khadija is kind to Adunni and helps her to manage the advances of their lecherous husband.

Tragedy strikes, however, when Khadija dies in premature labour. Adunni, who was the only one with her at the time, fears she will be blamed, so she decides to run away. She tracks down an old friend of her mother’s who introduces her to her son, the mysterious Mr Kola, who the woman says can find her work as a housemaid and that the owner will pay for Adunni to be educated. This is everything that Adunni wants and so she goes with Mr Kola. He takes her to a rich household in a Lagos suburb. Adunni has never been to Lagos before and she is overwhelmed by the size of the city and its chaos.

‘Big Madam’ is a successful entrepreneur, owner of a company selling luxury fabric, and she lives in a gated property with fancy cars, servants and her (also lecherous) husband. Adunni is treated badly – she has effectively been sold into slavery by Mr Kola. She is never paid for her work, is beaten by Big Madam and it looks as though the hoped-for education is never going to happen. I don’t want to reveal any spoilers so will cease my plot description there.

Adunni’s journey and her wide-eyed and innocent commentary on the events that befall her is at once charming and horrific. The courage and ingenuity she shows in the most testing of circumstances are truly heroic, that is the uplifting bit, but the brutality of the treatment she receives, from rape, to physical abuse, to theft and exploitation, are out and out shocking. If it were not for Adunni’s charm the book would be barely readable. Adunni’s ‘louding voice’ refers to her growing courage, her determination to speak up and speak out against her abusers.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The author has tackled some truly grave themes with creativity and humour. We are reminded throughout that we are talking about present day Nigeria, not something from a bygone era before feminism and human rights; no, this is still happening. References are made to Boko Haram and the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok in 2014. This book reveals the reality of life in the 21st century for too many girls and young women in this vast country of over 200 million people.

It is a sobering read, but a good one and I recommend it highly. Please note the statistics below.

“Around the world, 132 million girls are out of school, including 34.3 million of primary school age, 30 million of lower-secondary school age, and 67.4 million of upper-secondary school age. In countries affected by conflict, girls are more than twice as likely to be out of school than girls living in non-affected countries.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Only 66 per cent of countries have achieved gender parity in primary education. At the secondary level, the gap widens: 45 per cent of countries have achieved gender parity in lower secondary education, and 25 per cent in upper secondary education.”

Source: Unicef, https://www.unicef.org/education/girls-education

Audiobook review – “Santaland Diaries” by David Sedaris

When I posted my new Facebook Reading Challenge earlier this week, I completely forgot to mention the final book of my 2020 reading challenge, which was The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris. I chose it because I just felt a bit of a laugh was in order at the end of what had been a challenging and intense few months. I decided to go for this one on audiobook because I love Sedaris’s unique style of delivery; he is mostly quite deadpan, but that just gives his occasional bursts of comic energy all the more impact.

The book is a series of sketches loosely based on Christmas themes. The longest of these, and the one which opens the book, is an account of the author’s time working as a Christmas elf at Santaland in Macy’s department store in New York city (the veracity is disputed, but who cares?). I made the mistake of starting to listen to this on one of my morning runs. I have to tell you that I had to stop several times, doubled over with breathless laughter and my chuckles got me some strange glances from passers-by! In the caricatures of ghastly parents, children, his fellow elves and the mostly overly self-important ‘Santas’ we can all recognise tiny little bits of ourselves. These pieces were first aired on various media in the early 1990s, but it is extraordinary how much of it remains punishingly accurate today. In the awful, domineering parents bullying their kids into posing for photos with Santa bearing gleeful smiles (regardless of their true feelings) he foreshadows instagram parenting which values the posting of an experience more highly than the experience itself. You could easily believe that Sedaris had been made completely cynical by his seasonal work experience but he ends the piece with an uplifting account of one of the truly magical Santas who really did enchant the children who came to see him.

The next couple of essays I found more clever than funny- one is a woman reading out her round robin Christmas letter in which she gives an account of her husband’s illegitimate Vietnamese daughter turning up at the family home, and ends very darkly when her own daughter’s baby dies, it turns out, at the hands of the narrator, who has tried to pin the blame for the crime on the Vietnamese ‘interloper’. Macabre humour indeed.

My favourite essay was called ‘6 to 8 Black Men’. It is one of the funniest things I have ever heard. It sounds very un-PC, but it is actually extremely self-deprecating and pokes fun at north American Christmas customs and the culture more generally (including the systemic racism), as compared to their European counterparts. I have had a couple of repeat listens of this piece and watched it on YouTube and it made me laugh just as much second and third time around. Sedaris’s humour is edgy at times, but I think the best comedy tends to makes you slightly uncomfortable.

This was a wonderful little collection, suitable for any time of year, and a perfect introduction to Sedaris, if you have not come across him before.

Highly recommended.

Happy New Year! (Must be time for a reading challenge?)

Hello, happy new year, happy Epiphany! I am late to the new year party this year. 2020 caused many of us to look at our lives somewhat afresh and ask what on earth we are doing and what is really important. One of the smallish things that I identified was an attachment to making Christmas something a bit more meaningful, in the absence of a religious faith, and I found myself taking an interest in some of the ancient secular traditions of the season. I tried not to do anything that looked too much like work between the winter solstice on the 20th/21st December (I watched the live sunset over Stonehenge broadcast on the English Heritage Facebook page and it was amazing) and twelfth night on 5th January (yes, I know many say it’s the 6th- depends when you start counting).

It was an odd period this time around for so many people. I was lucky; I collected my son from university in mid-December and with my husband and two daughters the five of us hunkered down, watched films, cooked, ate, walked, relaxed and generally had one of the nicest Christmasses ever. I’m not trying to be smug, especially if, denied the company and contact of loved ones, yours was s**t (and I know plenty of people for whom it was), I suppose all I’m saying is that we felt freer than usual of many of the normal Christmas pressures. And it was really very nice.

Our tree will come down today after a sterling four weeks of service. I switched off my Christmas lights for the last time yesterday night and I will miss them. I switched them on every morning when I came down to breakfast, still in the dark, and they were enormously cheering. I’ll need to find an alternative I think until the mornings are light again. I also lit candles in my front window every evening at dusk. That was nice too and I’m going to keep doing that until the evenings get a bit lighter.

So, today it’s back to work. My son scooted back to university at the weekend, relieved I think to have made the break for the border before Lockdown 3.o and the new travel restrictions came into force. My teenage daughters have diligently embraced the opportunities of online home learning – no more battling on public transport every day, no going out in the cold and dark, no school uniform and no classroom distractions from the handful of kids whose learning loss over the past few months has been so grave that they have forgotten how to behave in a classroom or towards their teachers. Sad, distressing and deeply worrying. Teachers, you have my utmost utmost respect for what you have done, achieved and had to put up with in 2020. I am lucky to have motivated children, old enough not to need supervision, able enough not to need much support and a household with enough tech and enough broadband to support a family of four online for most of the day. I am very very aware of my good fortune. It is a scandal that so many do not enjoy the last two things in order to cope with the first three.

I spent a lot of time reading over the Christmas break (goodness is it really four weeks since I last posted?!), but not my usual fare. I read a load of short stories; I bought most of my Christmas gifts in my local bookshops, one of which is a chain with a loyalty scheme. I built up quite a nice bunch of points so on Christmas Eve I treated myself to the following books:

I’ve been working my way through these and it was a joy to dip in and out. More on these soon.

Now it is time to look forward, and 2021 promises much. The vaccine, oh the vaccine. Surely the scientific miracle of our age. Let us hope governments deliver. The inauguration of a new President in the United States, whom we hope will, alongside his stellar Vice-President-elect, lead the world, as only his country can do, in paying long overdue serious attention to climate change, and addressing social injustice in all its forms. Only fourteen more days to go. I think the rest of the world is counting.

Plus of course, there are the dozens of wonderful books we are due, and lots of cultural events coming up. And, on a more parochial note, there is of course my 2021 Facebook Reading Challenge! It’s been tough this time, coming up with themes (I’ve done the genres and I’ve done countries and continents), so I’m just doing a hybrid of previous years and re-using most of the themes in a different order or with a twist! Why not? It has thrown up some really wonderful reading choices that I would not otherwise have made so what is not to like?

My first book of the year, on the theme of an American classic, is a re-read for me, and not too long, since we are already nearly a week into the month – The Color Purple by Alice Walker. I would love for you to join me on my Facebook Reading Challenge this year. You can print out and keep my reading challenge pro forma below (:D) if you’d like to get involved, and join my Facebook group.

Happy reading everyone!