Human Relationships Confront Existential Crises Amid A Rapidly Changing External World In ‘The New Wilderness’ | Verve Magazine
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October 09, 2020

Human Relationships Confront Existential Crises Amid A Rapidly Changing External World In ‘The New Wilderness’

Text by Vivek Tejuja. Photographed by Joshua Navalkar

Diane Cook tackles the urgency of our deteriorating environment through the experience of a mother-daughter pair that is fighting for survival in the last remaining stretch of land previously untouched by humans

The New Wilderness by Diane Cook is a climate change novel. It is a novel about the post climate change world, and what it would be like to co-exist in such a place. Now, I am not the type to read these kinds of stories; I usually steer clear of brutal reality depicted in fiction and so had good enough reason to skip over this Booker short-listed novel, but there was no staying away from it. I had long been in denial about climate change (Yes, I am perhaps one of those people. Not anymore, though. I was one of those people). But it’s a reality I needed to wake up to, and just because it’s unpleasant doesn’t mean that it will go away if I ignore it.

The New Wilderness, on the surface, is the story of a mother and a daughter trying to make sense of their changing surroundings. Agnes is a five-year-old girl whose respiratory system has been compromised since birth. This, of course, has to do with being in the City that is full of pollution and smog – what people now call “different air”. Her mother, Bea, understands this and has only one option left: The Wilderness State. A state that had previously not allowed humans to enter it. An unchartered, dangerous and wild territory that was likely to be as unsafe for a five-year-old as the current one. But Bea, along with other volunteers, signs up to be part of an experiment to survive in The Wilderness. Now, it is up to her to make it through with Agnes in the unknown, in a place where she will possibly have to look out for her daughter constantly.

The New Wilderness is, at its heart, about motherhood and parenting. It is about the world we are going to leave behind for our children, and the one we are living in now. The book also closely follows the changes in the flora and fauna as the story progresses; the wilderness has its own temperament – from being beautiful and idyllic to turning violent and destructive. This reflected in the interplay between the characters, mainly Agnes and Bea.

What struck me most was that the book did not allow me to linger on a particular page or scene, or even in the moments when the characters were on the precipice of something utterly exciting. The narrative moves along swiftly, and so did I.

There are some books you submit to. You have to give in to their atmosphere, even if you disagree at certain points or find them tough to get into. This was The New Wilderness for me, initially. I didn’t know where it was going in the middle, but I persisted because of the writing, which is rather commendable for a debut work.

What is also interesting to note when it comes to the characters, is that Bea’s husband, Glen, seems to exist only in the background. The main focus is on her and Agnes, which, honestly, I preferred. The dynamic between them is so wonderful on so many levels, yet so punishing and wild. There are books that talk of mother-child relationships and are so blissfully unaware of what goes on, and then there are books such as this one and Girl in White Cotton, which defy, deny and break every existing stereotype.

We are each being affected by what is going on. We have globally been stunned into shock, depression even, and the pathos of uncertainty lies in every step we take. Yet, we are hopeful. Yet, we shall overcome. Yet, we are only human in all of this. The New Wilderness is a stunning debut about how we are as humans – how fragile, how broken, how resilient, even in the face of danger and the gravest of situations. Cook evokes so many questions, thoughts, emotions and, above all, the basic idea of what home is, how it changes over time, and what is left of it.


In this column, Verve’s Culture Editor offers personal reflections and critical insights on a wide-ranging selection of literature. During the coming weeks, he will focus on this year’s Booker shortlist until November 17th, when the winning novel will be announced 

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