Margaret Busby, Chair of the 2020 judges, says: "The shortlist of six came together unexpectedly, voices and characters resonating with us all even when very different. We are delighted to help disseminate these chronicles of creative humanity to a global audience."
Margaret Busby, Chair of the 2020 judges, says: “Each of these books carries an impact that has earned it a place on the longlist, deserving of wide readership. Included are novels carried by the sweep of history with memorable characters brought to life and given visibility, novels that represent a moment of cultural change, or the pressures an individual faces in pre- and post-dystopian society... As judges we connected with these writers’ well-crafted prose, the mastery of detail, the arresting sentence, the credibility of the narrative arc, the ability to use to the full, the resources of storytelling. Unplanned, our final selection encompasses both seasoned favourites and debut talents ― a truly satisfying outcome.”
Meanwhile, the other members of their rapidly diminishing group have their own agendas and priorities. From a leaderless, consensus-driven group, they descend, seemingly inevitably, into something much darker. Cook ups the ante in ways that are fairly predictable for those well read in recent dystopia literature. The New Wilderness is a well-formed and powerful piece of writing, but not groundbreaking in its ambitions. But her environmental lament feels all the more poignant for the fact that the Wilderness is hemmed in on all sides. Any member of the Community can leave it — but there is no escape for this last forlorn expanse of undeveloped earth.
We first meet the group some years into the experiment, as they trek from one outpost to the next under vague instructions from rangers. Questions are barely tolerated, little context is given. A sense of uncertainty and dread hangs over proceedings as they move pointlessly, and therefore relentlessly, across forests, playas, mountain ranges and lakes. There is a purgatorial feel to the novel, which is hugely appropriate to its subject matter. Cook doesn’t spell it out – she is a subtle writer who eschews the dramatic – but beneath the events of this ecological horror story, the point is clear: humans will soon pay for the damage being done in the present day.
There’s a lot of landscape in The New Wilderness, and 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: a fatal mauling, a fall down an abyss, even the tragic stillbirth of a child whose personhood is heartbreakingly discounted by a Ranger in one of the novel’s most poignant scenes. But to numb the narrative consciousness to these events, the text must numb the reader, too... 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.
When she returns to the Wilderness, Bea only vaguely sketches how much worse the City has become, which seems like a wasted opportunity. Crucially, given that half the narrative is related from her perspective, Bea’s story is not satisfactorily resolved. At its best, however, The New Wilderness is bleakly compelling, and leavened by wry, sparkling humour that Cook combines seamlessly with existential dread. Take, for instance, the moment a bear raids the Community’s camp: “No one was hurt, but the bear refused to leave, luxuriating and s------- on their beds and trying to eat all their provisions."