A timeless fairy tale about humanity

Emily Temple

THE WASHINGTON POST – The residents of America’s cities – those who can afford to, that is – are fleeing. Spurred by the pandemic, they’re headed to the suburbs, to the exurbs, to the country. They’re looking for space, for nature and, most important, for the relative safety promised by lower population densities.

And they’re getting desperate: In these pockets of the real estate market, inventory is low, demand is high and prices are rising. Unlike some of these recent escapees, Diane Cook has had the wilderness on her mind for a long time.

The epigraph to her 2014 collection, Man v Nature, comes from a letter Emily Dickinson wrote to her mentor after the death of his wife, “The Wilderness is new – to you. Master, let me lead you.” Readers will feel a thrill of recognition, then, to find that Cook’s first novel, published six years later, is called The New Wilderness. The recognition won’t end there: 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.

When the novel begins, Bea and her family – daughter Agnes and husband Glen, who is not Agnes’ father – have been living as nomads in the Wilderness State for three years, as part of a pilot programme to study how humans interact with nature. In the world of the novel, which Cook hints is not very far into the future, the protected, cordoned-off Wilderness State is the last bit of nature left, all other land having been separated into useful sectors: the Manufacturing Zone, the Woodlots, the Server Farms and, of course, the City.

Bea misses the City. But the air there had become increasingly toxic to children, and Agnes was getting sicker and sicker. “What this child needs,” a doctor told Bea as baby Agnes coughed up blood, “is different air”. Joining the study, with its stringent rules and mandatory check-ins with the Rangers, was their last resort. 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. 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.

Early on, one of Bea’s companions dies in a violent accident; this has happened before, and most people are more concerned about the good rope they lost in the process, but they also liked Caroline, and a few pages later, Bea is irritated that they’re still lingering on her death. Bea has her reasons, but when she expresses her frustration to a Ranger, he responds cautiously, “Well, she just died yesterday, you said?” So yes, in case you were wondering, the novel is funny too, mordantly so.

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.

If this novel is timely, it’s accidentally so, as most “timely” novels are. More than timely, it feels timeless, solid, like a forgotten classic recently resurfaced – a brutal, beguiling fairy tale about humanity. But at its core, The New Wilderness is really about motherhood, and about the world we make (or unmake) for our children. You can’t blame anyone for wanting to escape into the woods when danger looms – but the wilderness has its own perils, as any wanderer will soon discover.