This took me a little while to get into – the premise of a group of volunteers becoming nomads in The Wilderness State as part of an experiment as escape polluted city life is really quite challenging from the outset – but Cook’s been clever with her tale, and I was caught up in this narrative once we’d got past all the introductions.
Bea and her husband Glen, one of the experiment’s architects, have fled the city because their daughter, Agnes, is sick and needs the fresh air no longer available in the city. It’s clear from oblique references that society is on the state of collapse – we’ve obviously left it too late by this point – and that this band of new nomads are the lucky ones. It’s hard to keep this sense of their ‘luck’ in sight, however, because their new life is tough and often bleak. When we first meet Bea, she is giving birth, alone, to a still-born daughter who she then buries in a shallow grave, knowing that the wild animals are already circling. The original group has already been reduced, as we learn when Bea checks in with Ranger Bob at a checkpoint:
‘“Right, now for the part I hate. Losses. Names and causes.”
“Becky. Cougar maul.”
Ranger Bob tsked as he scribbled into the ledger. “That’s too bad,” he said. “Next?”
“Dan. Rock slide.”
“And he died?”
“His pelvis was crushed.”
“And he died.”
“We assume.” Bea paused. “I mean, we had to leave him behind.”
Life has been reduced to sheer survival, and it’s clear that in such a world, people will do whatever it takes to live and to look after their families. There’s a difference between the adults’ perspectives and that of the children who’ve known little else – there is much wild beauty in this way of living and we watch Agnes growing into an awareness of her new capabilities in this wilderness.
As it goes on, the novel explores the ideas of power and control in this new world. Having the Rangers to police the nomads’ behaviour is an excellent stroke, providing motivation and also reminding us that this wilderness does have its boundaries – not everyone is living like this group (the group also receive letters from back home). It is perhaps this which makes this novel of isolated survival different from other such stories, Lord of the Flies and Robinson Crusoe being the obvious ones. This group are being watched from afar, and their choices are not entirely their own – there is an idea held amongst members of the group that there is another state elsewhere which has escaped the worst of the havoc of climate change – The Private Lands – which tips Cook’s novel further into the dystopian.
I can see why it’s been shortlisted for the Booker. I read it with a horrified fascination, and the certainty that I wouldn’t last long in The Wilderness State. At the moment, my money is still on Shuggie Bain, but this one’s a contender.