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 Testaments” by Margaret Atwood

I launched my 2020 Facebook Reading Challenge earlier this week and the theme for January was one of the biggest books of the last decade. The book I chose was Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl a huge bestseller published in 2014, but Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, published just a few months ago, could easily go down as one of the books of the decade too. Being at the ‘literary’ rather than the ‘popular’ end of the market means it will not likely match the 20 million sales worldwide that Flynn’s novel enjoyed, but it was the most anticipated book I can remember in a very long while, its publication the most advertised, was immediately serialised on the BBC in the UK, won the Booker Prize (jointly with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other) and will definitely be dramatized at some point.

The Testaments imgIt is truly a groundbreaking novel, but curiously, in my view, less in its own right than as an extension, a continuation of, the work started with the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. What is also partly so extraordinary about The Testaments is how relevant its story remains over thirty years on from The Handmaid’s Tale. In spite of equality legislation, human rights legislation, more women in positions of power and authority, we still have world leaders able to express their misogyny openly and with impunity, and violence against women and girls seems as rife as ever. Atwood is Canadian, but her novel is a dystopian vision set in the United States, where, in the last year, we have seen the erosion of women’s reproductive and therefore health rights in some states and the substantial threat of more to come. This novel seems so urgent and necessary.

The Testaments is written from the perspectives of three women and is presented as an account of their experiences in what appears to be a declining Gilead. Atwood’s brilliant authorial technique of presenting the work as part of research seminars at the Symposium of Gileadian Studies (as she did with The Handmaid’s Tale, where Offred’s story was gleaned from a series of tape recordings discovered in an old property) means that we have separate accounts from three individuals. The opening ‘testament’ is from Aunt Lydia, the monstrous matriarchal figure in charge of the handmaids, whom we know well from the earlier book. Her power is at its peak and we learn that she know has a statue at Ardua Hall, the training centre for Gilead’s aunts. We learn more about her early career as a judge and how she came to be recruited to the army of aunts and rose to the top.

The second ‘witness’ is Agnes, the ‘child’ of one of the leading Commanders in Gilead and his first wife, Tabitha. Agnes, of course, is not their full biological child; as we know from the earlier novel, the role of the handmaids was simply as a gestational vehicle to produce offspring for the higher orders in Gilead. Nevertheless, Agnes was loved by her adoptive mother Tabitha, until the latter died of cancer. Commander Kyle’s new wife is unhappy with the presence of her step-daughter and quickly arranges for her to be married off. Unhappy with the choices offered, however, Agnes asks to be admitted to Ardua Hall to train as an aunt. She goes there along with some of her schoolfriends.

The final witness is Daisy, a feisty sixteen year-old living in Canada. Her parents, Neil and Melanie, run a charity shop and they are all well aware of events in nearby Gilead, not least because they are taught at school about their near-neighbour, about refugees from that state, about the talismanic significance of ‘Baby Nicole’, the child smuggled out of Gilead many years earlier by a handmaid and whom the authorities desperately want to find, and they see daily the so-called ‘Pearl Girls’, Gileadian missionary women whose role is to recruit young women to their cause. When Daisy’s parents are brutally killed by a car-bomb, Gileadian terrorism is suspected and Daisy is taken into hiding. Daisy is told that she is in fact the missing Baby Nicole and is asked to enter Gilead undercover, as a prospective recruit, to connect with an outsider there and help undermine the state.

Thus the scene is set for a gripping tale. At first, I thought it could not possibly be as jaw-dropping, or the execution of literary intent as magnificent, as The Handmaid’s Tale, which I re-read in anticipation of the publication of The Testaments, but I’m happy to say it is, but in a very different way. If anything, I would say the plot is stronger.

Margaret Atwood
Photo from http://www.CurtisBrown.co.uk

Margaret Atwood is now 80 years old. After The Handmaid’s Tale in the 1980s, she has published classics in every decade – Alias Grace in 1996, The Blind Assassin in 2000 (my personal favourite), Oryx and Crake in 2003, Hag-Seed in 2016, to name but a few – will this woman ever peak?! I hope not.

Highly recommended, perhaps essential reading.