Here we are. A couple months later, a little behind schedule of my goal of finishing before the shortlist was announced, but nevertheless better late than never: my final Aspen Words 2021 longlist read/review! I won’t lie, this is the longlist book I was least interested in reading, so I saved it for last. I almost decided not to read it at all, since I already knew it wasn’t a finalist. BUT I am glad I decided to go for it because, even though I was right (I know myself) and I wasn’t totally into it, I feel very accomplished at having gotten through the full 15 books on the longlist. Go me!
The New Wilderness is a speculative/post-apocalyptic story (which was definitely a theme of this year’s longlist, with A Children’s Bible and Leave the World Behind both on the list as well) about a group of people who abandon everything they know in “the City” to start a new life as, essentially, hunter-gatherer nomads in a closely guarded and regulated Wilderness State (from what the reader can tell, the only “natural” area left in the known world). Part of this group of twenty are Bea and Agnes. Bea’s husband, Glen, is a university researcher who was interested in joining the expedition for scientific purposes, and is able to get approval for Bea and their daughter, Agnes, to join in order to save Agnes’ life (she is quite sick and the only possible treatment/cure is “different air” – an impossibility within the city). As they adjust to this new life and, as Agnes becomes ever healthier and ever more in communion with nature and moves into a sort of leadership role in the group as she gets older, their relationships with each other change and (of course) tensions arise – within the family unit, within the larger Community, and between the Community and the world outside the Wilderness.
I have to start this review with the caveat that I was iffy on this book before I even started. I have learned over the years that I am not so much into nature-writing, and that seemed to be a primary feature of this particular novel. Interestingly though, upon first starting it, I actually found it compulsively readable. The first 100 or so pages passed in what felt like the blink of an eye. The rest of the 300 pages though…those became more of a slog for me, and I must admit I did some skimming. I can’t say for sure what happened, but perhaps it was just that the novelty of starting a new book wore off and I found myself in the midst of the exact kind of nature-writing that is just not for me. Plus, while the inter-character dynamics started off interesting, as we learned about the way the Community worked, etc. it got to a point where their minute disagreements and indecision, which I respect were all very important to them in the moment and in the lifestyle, just didn’t matter to me very much. Even the addition, partway through, of “Newcomers” didn’t really mix things up quite enough for me. I honestly felt like, other than the main couple characters, anyone else kind of just blended together in a background were too unintelligible from each other for me to care about the individual little issues.
There were also some larger structural items that felt off to me. I never got a feel for the wider world (outside the Wilderness), which could have been purposeful because the majority of the story was from Agnes’ POV and she wasn’t there at an old enough age to remember much of it, but I felt sort of stranded/distanced. Again, that could have been purposeful because it was how the Community felt, but they still must have had memories of the City and their pasts there. Plus, it made it hard to understand the motivations and action of the Rangers, without any other context (and thus, made it hard to “get” why the Community followed their rules so stringently). Relatedly, the passing of time was difficult to follow. Again, maybe purposeful, to put us in the Community’s shoes, but it felt to me more like I was alienated from the world of the novel, rather than able to empathize with the characters. And really, the entire last section/ending left me feeling totally unsure of anything within the world the novel presented. Like, what happened to the characters and the idea/goals of the Community and in the wider world? And (one more time) perhaps our view is limited to what Agnes’ would have been, but like, it just didn’t work for me.
One major aspect that I never felt sure of was whether this was “just” a speculative fiction story OR if it was supposed to be a parable about the way bureaucracy/capitalism/colonialism pushed out Indigenous peoples and trashed their lands and cultures and lives and scattered their family. I want it to be the latter, because then there is at least a larger message and goal behind the writing, and not just a loose tale of an unclear post-apocalyptic world. But, if that is indeed the case, there were definitely still major marks that were missed, as the only recognition of the Native Peoples who first lived on the lands referenced throughout the novel (and the many clear appropriations of their lifestyles and survival knowledge) was a Land Acknowledgement at the end. And that’s necessary and important. But also, Glen (and Carl, actually), major characters, were scholars who studied these civilizations/lifestyles (which was at least part of why they wanted to be part of the group in the first place), so there were built in characters who could have given acknowledgement and recognition throughout the novel, easily and smoothly, and that never happened. That was frustrating.
I do want to say, however, that there were some better parts of this novel. First, if you ARE into nature-writing, I think that aspect is well done and pervasive, so you’ll like that. Also, the complexities of mother-daughter relationships were a highlight for me. It was very interesting to see the sacrifices Bea made for Agnes (sacrifices her own mother wasn’t always on board with) and then how she reacted when those sacrifices were a success (if you will) and Agnes didn’t need her in the same way anymore. It was a very unique way to exemplify that kind of pride and happiness alongside a feeling of, almost loss/lack of direction, and how that is handled. Then, the way that Agnes interpreted Bea’s (perfectly imperfect) reaction to the loss of her own mother, as well as the way their interactions changed after that (Agnes’ independence and, for lack of a better term, surrogate/temporary motherly connections) was fascinating and layered. There was a lot going on there and the author did a great job showing how it’s all so complex and nuanced and there may never be clear or easy explanations for the way people behave or react or treat each other, even (and especially) within close relationships like that of a mother and daughter. And I liked what the author tried to do at the end, giving Agnes’ a motherly sort of role (symbolizing, I suppose, how we all start to understand people better/more when we step into their shoes), but it didn’t land quite as fully as I would have liked.
Well…there you have it. Likely my least favorite from the longlist, which proves either that I know myself, as a reader, pretty well by now OR that I’m close-minded and this was a self-fulfilling prophecy situation. That being said, it’s truly unfair for me to either recommend this novel (or not) with any kind of objectivity. So, I’m giving it a neutral 3-stars and calling it a day. On to the next.
There was some really lovely writing throughout the novel, so enjoy these pull-quotes/passages:
“And she loved Agnes fiercely, though motherhood felt like a heavy coat she was compelled to put on each day no matter the weather.”
“Officially, these twenty were in the Wilderness State as part of an experiment to see how people interacted with nature, because, with all land now being used for resources – oil, gas, minerals, water, wood, food – or storage – trash, servers, toxic waste – such interactions had become lost to history. But most of the twenty didn’t know much about science, and many of them didn’t even care about nature. These twenty had the same reasons people always had for turning their backs on everything they’d known and venturing to an unfamiliar place. They went to the Wilderness State because there was not other place they could go.”
“…people who enforce rules don’t have to follow them.”
“Wasn’t that part of the point? To kill off their sense of home? To have them feel at home anywhere? Or nowhere? Were they the same thing?”
“She did not want her mother’s aggressive overtures of love. […] She hated her mother’s fierce love. Because fierce love never lasted. Fierce love now meant that later, there would be no love, or at least that’s what it would feel like. Agnes wanted a mild mother, one who seemed to love her exactly the same every day.”
“She hated how easy it was for her to love her mother. She would always love her mother. Even when her mother didn’t deserve it. It filled her with shame, and with yearning too.”
“But I’ve learned. I know better. It’s not safe to make yourself known in a place you’re not supposed to be. We must always hide.”