Bea's five-year-old daughter, Agnes, is slowly wasting away, consumed by the smog and pollution of the overdeveloped metropolis that most of the population now calls home. If they stay in the city, Agnes will die. There is only one alternative: the Wilderness State, the last swath of untouched, protected land, where people have always been forbidden.
... inspired ... In Cook’s masterful hands, there are no easy answers to the question of whether humans can actually revert to their wild selves ... seems to argue that it is this willingness to ditch guidelines in the name of personal advantage that is the essence of humanity, whether one lives in the City or the Wilderness State...That’s all secondary to the true, transcendent heart of this novel: the evolving and ever-surprising relationship between Bea and Agnes. Through miscarriages, abandonments, rescue and murder, the bond between mother and daughter breaks and mends in remarkable and moving ways ... A gripping adventure that denies its readers easy answers, The New Wilderness is an important debut, and an illuminating read in these times, when the stakes of humans’ relationship with nature have never felt higher.
Cook has deepened and expanded on the concerns first aired in her stories, like a fresh mountain stream running inevitably into a deep, cold lake ... It’s hard to read all this during a pandemic of a respiratory illness caused by an airborne virus without feeling an extra chill, but Cook has always excelled at rendering horror plainly, whether that horror is monstrous or merely human. Here, we get both: This manages to be a speculative novel about the future and a well-researched tale about living primitively, arrowheads, hides and all ... funny too, mordantly so ... Cook is a skilled unpeeler of information; revelations and discoveries are timed to perfection. Any time we begin to get complacent in the Wilderness State, Cook remakes the universe, shifting the point of view, the time frame, the physical landscape or the emotional one. It makes a story that might have languished in the valley with its characters move at a brisk pace ... That pace flags only occasionally, usually during descriptions of the landscape, which are frequent enough to become slightly tedious. But in a novel about how humans might survive when stripped of a modernity that’s gone too far, maybe that’s part of the point: Even the most beautiful sunsets and sage fields become boring when they’re all you have ... More than timely, it feels timeless, solid, like a forgotten classic recently resurfaced — a brutal, beguiling fairy tale about humanity.
Cook remains as dubious of our species’ trajectory as she was in her rich and original short story collection, Man V. Nature. One of her most compelling concerns in The New Wilderness is the corrosive force of individualism, and how pedestrian the human tendency to destroy really is—how the hardwired urge to self-preserve erodes the possibility of fellowship and forward thinking ... Cook’s prose is at its finest when she trains her eye on the natural world. The harsh, dazzling setting seems to be one of the few things to which the characters react with much awe or emotion—but for me, their ambivalence toward so many other aspects of life comes at a cost. Cook’s desired intention, I believe, must be to highlight the mutedness with which her characters have come to experience events that would horrify most 21st-century readers ... But to numb the narrative consciousness to these events, the text must numb the reader, too. This is achieved by destabilising our sense of time, pulling the perspective back, and blurring details that would have given us a more precise sense of Bea, Agnes, and the world around them ... Still, I am confident that this distancing effect will not trouble every reader. Cook takes command of a fast-paced, thrilling story to ask stomach-turning questions in a moment when it would benefit every soul to have their stomach turned by the prospect of the future she envisions. I, for one, was grateful for the journey.