Wild world

Karin Lock reviews The New Wilderness by Diane Cook

In this age of eco-anxiety, nature is often depicted as something precious and apart, a sacred space to be protected and treated with reverence. The reality is humans are integral to nature, rather than separate from it. Why we pollute our habitats, despite the detrimental effect this has on our own wellbeing (and the planet’s eco-system), is a mystery.

In Britain a new movement promises to ‘rewild’ the countryside to reduce biodiversity loss and prevent climate change. Diane Cook takes this idea and distorts it in her debut dystopian novel The New Wilderness. The book’s setting is the Wilderness State, a massive fenced-off area that is off-limits to the public for some unknown reason.

20 volunteers (the Community) are offered the chance to explore this wilderness on foot as part of an experiment. What starts as a camping trip turns into a gruelling endurance test as the Community encounter hunger, wild animals, and flash floods. They have a manual of rules to follow; they cannot camp in the same place twice, must carry all their rubbish and leave no trace of fire.

Bea has joined the experiment because of her daughter Agnes’ failing health. Agnes cannot breathe in the city because of the dangerous air pollution levels. They both adapt to the wild and become excellent trackers. By watching the animals, they know the seasons, the whereabouts of safe drinking water, and when to hide from storms or predators.

Bea struggles deeply with her motherly instinct of putting her daughter’s health first. She misses her own mother (a city dweller) desperately. As months turn into years, Bea loses patience with the group, the landscape, and the experiment. When the Community is diverted to a far-off unexplored part of the zone, Bea makes a drastic decision that changes her destiny.

This vivid, imaginative story examines the challenges of living in a nomadic community and giving up everyday luxuries. The harshness of survival makes attachment and sentimentality difficult: death might be round the next corner.

Yet rituals bind the people together, providing a break from the monotony of primitive existence.

Like a spin-off of The Hunger Games, this book’s world comprises numerous habitation zones wherein movement is severely restricted. There are manufacturing and mining areas where workers live; a city zone for the middle classes; and the fabled but unseen private lands for the super-rich. The novel posits the question: who is most free in this world?

The rangers who patrol the Wilderness State in trucks, policing the Community’s activities, seem to have the most liberated status. They access the wildness at will, have good working conditions and are in positions of authority. After four years, the Community starts to rebel against them: “And we wait here. Waiting for what? Our keepers to give us our orders?”

Much of this tale sounds eerily familiar: the scenario of being in an experiment; undergoing tracking and testing; submitting to ever-changing rules (and fines); and wandering in circles aimlessly, is recognisable.

The New Wilderness is a contribution to the ‘cli-fi ’ literary genre – a glance at future biospheres that feel raw and bleak but believable. The UK government’s refusal to lower legal air pollution levels despite a recent court ruling is worrying. Plans for the Great Reset are in the offing and trees are being felled to prevent interference with new technologies. The New Wilderness may already be here.