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.

Booker Prize 2020 – winner announced tonight!

In previous years I have set myself the task of trying to read the Booker Prize shortlist between the time that it is released, usually mid-September, and the announcement of the winner. This is usually a month or so later in mid-October, so it is a tall order – six books in a little over four weeks. I have never succeeded in this endeavour – I’m usually still working my way through the list at Christmas. How do the judges get through so many books in the time that they do? I doubt they are even paid much to do it!

Last year, the Booker Prize was far from the forefront of my mind as my mother died in mid-September and her funeral coincided with the week of the announcement of the winner. I did subsequently read both of the books that won the prize jointly (remember that extremely unusual outcome?) – Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other and Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments – as well as Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World. I still have Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte and Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport on my TBR list.

This year the announcement of the winning book is a month later than usual. I assume this is all down to ‘the pandemic’ though I’ve heard of no official reason being given. Perhaps the committee has decided to be a bit kinder to the judges this year. Once again, I decided against trying to get through the shortlist, but have in fact read two of the books, one of which I loved and one of which has left me wondering if I missed something!

The book I loved was Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, a superb debut novel. Set in early 1980s Glasgow it is a visceral account of a young boy growing up in an atmosphere of poverty and his beloved mother’s alcoholism. The working-class community in which he lives is being ground down by the searing devastation of the Thatcherite era. Shuggie is ‘unusual’ – he is effeminate and naive, but his relationship with his mother is an portrait of love stretched to its very limits by the strain of addiction. I plan to write a longer review of this book so I will say no more at this stage. Let’s see if it wins!

The other book I read, and which I’m afraid I didn’t love, was Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi. It is the story of a strained mother-daughter relationship. The mother, Tara, has dementia and her daughter, Antara, is finds she is forced increasingly to care for the woman who failed to care for her properly as a child. Tara left her husband with her daugher to join an ashram when the child was still very young. Their ‘bohemian’ lifestyle included some time spent begging, and also living with an artist who it is clear did not really care for either Tara or her young child. Antara experienced a degree of neglect as a child, for example receiving very little formal early education, and her mother’s attitude to her has been one largely of indifference.

As a mature woman, Antara struggles with the demands placed upon her by her mother. Tara can be cruel – is that the disease or is that how she has always behaved towards her daughter? She is engaged to be married to Dilip, an Indian-American, who cannot fully empathise with Antara’s dilemma. This book reminded me a little of Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, which has a similar storyline and which I also struggled to enjoy (though I think it was a better book). Everything Under was shortlisted for the Booker in 2018. Burnt Sugar has also been compared to Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk – I cannot concur . I loved that book. I’m afraid that, for me, what Burnt Sugar lacks is a story. Even after reading it, I’m afraid I’m not sure what it is really about, or what it is trying to say, apart from dementia is a horrible disease that throws family relationships into turmoil. Even the ending leaves you hanging. There is no narrative question that is resolved, which, for me, is one of the fundamentals of fiction.

I don’t like giving negative reviews and I have seen so many positive statements about this book; am I missing something? This one just did not do it for me. And my fellow book club members seem to agree – a pretty resounding thumbs-down! Perhaps it is just that Shuggie Bain is such a fabulous story, that this book felt wanting.

I am about to start another book on the shortlist – The New Wilderness by American author Diane Cook, another novel about motherhood, but this time in the shadow of climate change.

We will see what happens at the announcement tonight. One thing is for sure, it will not be the usual black-tie dinner!

Booker shortlist book review – “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” by Elif Shafak

I posted last week about the events of my life over the last couple of months, the dominant event being the death of my mother in mid- September. So much has happened in that time and yet I have felt rather out of the loop, my attention having been on other things. It feels strange to be posting here again, to be writing my first book review in what feels like months – can you believe I have a few butterflies?!

Booker Prize 2019The Booker prize winner(s) were announced last week and for the first time in years, and against the explicit rules of the contest, the judges awarded the prize jointly to Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo. I have not read either book yet, though I am currently listening to The Testaments on the excellent BBC Sounds and enjoying it enormously, though it is extremely dark. There has been so much publicity around Atwood and The Testaments that I was wondering how on earth the Booker prize judges were going to be able to not award it to her! So, I think the judges probably made the right decision. By now, I would probably have worked my way through at least two thirds of the shortlist (I’ve never managed all six in the period between shortlist and winner), but, for obvious reasons, I have not read that much so far this year.

10 minutes, 38 seconds imgIt is somewhat and sadly ironic that I was reading Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World at the time of my mother’s death, a novel about a woman, Leila, an Istanbul prostitute known as Tequila Leila, who is brutally murdered in a back alley by street thugs. Rather than death being an instant occurrence, however, the author explores the idea of it as a transition from the world of the living to the ‘other’ (with a duration, for Leila, of ten minutes and thirty-eight seconds) during which time her whole life flashes before her. Leila’s life story is told through a series of recollections about her five closest friends, how and when she met them and what impact they have had on her life. We learn that Leila came from a relatively affluent family. Her father was anxious for heirs, but when his wife proved incapable of having any he took a second wife, Binnaz, a much younger woman from a lowly family, who gave birth to Leila. Binnaz was forced to give up the child to the first wife to bring up as if she were her own, whilst Binnaz, who never recovered mentally from the trauma of that event, was thereafter known to Leila as ‘Auntie’.

Leila was sexually abused by her uncle as a child, ran away to Istanbul at the age of sixteen and, somewhat inevitably, was lured into a world of prostitution where she suffered many abuses, including being disfigured by a lunatic client who threw acid at her. She eventually found love in her life, with D’Ali, but he was killed soon after they were married and she found herself back on the streets again, just to survive.

We learn about the five friends in her life, people who crossed her path and whom she helped in different ways, and who became her family after her parents disowned her. Through these stories we learn about Leila’s humanity and warmth, her openness and kindness. After Leila’s death, with no living relatives willing to claim her body, the city consigns her to the ‘Cemetery of the Companionless’. Her friends have no rights to bury her so they set about stealing her body from the graveyard. The second half of the book is an account of how and why they do this and how eventually they give Leila the resting place they feel she deserves.

Elif Shafak is a Turkish national presently exiled from her country where she feels that with her liberal politics and as a free speech and human rights activist she would be in danger from the ultra-conservative government. It is clear, however, that she feels the present ruling party does not reflect the true culture of Turks, and in particular the ancient and multi-cultural city of Istanbul. The book is peppered with political messages and layered with historical references, particularly the Armenian genocide of 1915, a passion of Shafak’s, and the main topic of her novel The Bastard of Istanbul.

I have been an admirer of Elif Shafak since I saw her speak at the Hay Festival last year; she is a woman of huge intellect and achievement, a true polymath. However, I struggled with The Bastard of Istanbul as I have also with this book – I just did not like either of them as much as I wanted to. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds… is a really novel and interesting concept but I just felt like it did not deliver on its promise.

When my mother was admitted to hospital and was clearly close to death, I wondered whether to abandon this book; I thought I might find it too upsetting a read in the circumstances. But I’m afraid the book just did not move me. The second half even felt slightly slapstick.

I will keep admiring Shafak and keep trying with her books. Maybe I’ll find something I love!

What has been your favourite read from this year’s Booker shortlist?

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog. Let’s also connect on social media.