Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness is a poignant portrait of a mother and daughter fleeing the polluted cities of a near-future dystopia for a hand-to-mouth existence in the country’s last undeveloped tract. It’s also one of the unusual works of speculative fiction that’s been embraced by the world of high literature by (just this week) reaching the final round of the prestigious Booker Prize.
Although Cook has lived mostly in cities, she loves spending time in nature and wrote some of The New Wilderness while trekking across the high desert of Oregon.
“There is something about the expansiveness of lands that are empty that make my imagination feel a lot freer than it usually does in a city,” she says.
For Cook’s protagonist Bea, the Wilderness State offers the only hope for saving the life of her 5-year-old daughter, Agnes. But as Agnes’ lungs heal from the city’s smog, her relationship with her mother grows strained, suffering rifts that might be typical for a mother and daughter but are magnified by the strain of having to invent a nomadic way of life in a remorseless expanse.
“The Wilderness State is this very extreme place and this very extreme situation so it pushes everyone to a very extreme version of how they would normally be,” Cook says.