Book Review: The New Wilderness

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

An independent press getting a title on the Booker longlist is a Big Thing for them, even if it can also create headaches due to the cost of complying with the rules the Booker sets on print runs and marketing. Oneworld Publishing, however, has a rare success rate – winning the prize in 2015 and 2016. When their latest release, The New Wilderness, was included on this year’s longlist I was eager to read it.

The story is dystopian fiction, a genre that is proving popular in current times – and worryingly prescient. It is an exploration of how people react when their comfortable world turns toxic. Acceptance is only challenged by individuals when conditions prove personally untenable.

The reader is introduced to a small group of volunteers who have left the City – where pollution is killing their children – to join a monitored study in the Wilderness. Here they survive as hunter / gatherers but must leave no trace of their existence. This means no constructing of shelters or tools they cannot carry. Rangers ensure that they follow the rules set out in the Manual, punishing them for any infractions.

Opening with a stillbirth, the harsh realities of the volunteers’ lives are quickly laid bare. The mother, Bea, leaves the bloody remains of her early born baby to the coyotes, returning to her husband, Glen, and daughter, Agnes, in the cave where the family sleep. Bea finds comfort in items brought from the City – against the rules, she has squirreled them away. Agnes watches everything, listening but not understanding her mother’s behaviour.

The world building is interesting and skilfully rendered. However, when the community sets out on a Ranger mandated journey my engagement waned. There are reminiscences along the way that explain how the original twenty came to be eleven. Although reliant on each other’s strengths and skills, the community members don’t appear to like each other, thinking only of themselves.

“It felt absurd to say, Jane was swept away in a flash flood along with our best knife in this very canyon. The people they were writing to would never get that, even though they’d been sad to lose Jane because she was a good singer, the thing they pined for to this day was that knife.”

To survive the Wilderness, the volunteers become wild. Animal skills must be learned. Behaviour is often base. There is little privacy – even to defecate or copulate. There are frequent battles of wills, displays of brutal self-interest as each seeks dominance. Deaths are accepted, although even in the City this had been a part of how they lived.

“Almost no doctor worked on emergencies anymore because there were no emergencies anymore. Because of overpopulation, emergencies were thought of more or less as fate.”

The story picks up urgency and momentum after the group leave the first Ranger post they are required to visit. Their exploits demonstrate how people turn feral. The focus moves from Bea to Agnes. Unlike many in the community, the youngster is happy with her life in the Wilderness. Despite her age, she seeks to be accepted and respected as an adult, something that is indulged – the few children are all granted greater clemency.

A story of this length needs occasional changes of direction and this comes with an unexpected encounter at the next location the community is sent to. As a result, the balance of power within the group shifts. At first this felt staged but the author’s reasoning soon became apparent – a continuation of the world building.

Outside of the Wilderness there is little of the natural world. Housing is dense with the population educated to work only jobs that are necessary. There are mentions of mines, servers and processing plants. Rumours of Private Lands, where people may live in comfort and plenty as they once did, are widely regarded as a fiction.

The community’s Ranger enforced, nomadic existence is called into question when members ask why they mostly adhere to the strict rules. Agnes in particular believes she could easily survive if granted freedom. She is angered by the adults’ overriding fear of being returned to the City – a place she barely remembers.

There are many disturbing episodes to consider. Humanity is not portrayed as benevolent. As reader sympathy shifts with greater understanding of the wider picture, the tension rises to prepare for the trauma of the denouement.

Any Cop?: What at first appeared a standard dystopia has the bar raised by the quality of writing and uncompromising approach to human self-interest. The world created is frighteningly believable. This is a widely accessible addition to the Booker list.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Wild Laughter

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Wild Laughter is one of the most complete and satisfying works of fiction I have encountered. The author’s dexterity with language alone makes it worth a reader’s time and attention. There is also a compelling plot presented with humour and flair. None of this is to deny that certain elements of the story are discomfiting. Its central subject is how the complex relationships within family burn as often as balm. It is a fierce yet poignant evocation of love in a time of impending death.

The narrator is Doharty Black, known as Hart. He is the younger son of Manus and Nóra who have one other child – Cormac. Hart has the looks and Cormac the brains. Neither wishes to take on the family farm in rural Roscommon which Manus has worked since he was sixteen. The 2008 recession sweeps away this option due to debts incurred by boom time investments. The family’s woes are compounded by Manus’s terminal illness.

Hart had wanted to travel but puts such desires on hold to stay on the farm and help out until his father’s death. He idolises Manus – the Chief. There is little love lost between Hart and Nóra. Cormac visits only occasionally yet his influence remains quietly insidious. He guards his independence while expecting all to bend to his will.

Short chapters take the reader through key events over the course of a decade. There is a disturbing attempt at revenge when the teenage brothers blame a neighbouring farmer for their father’s financial difficulties. Later, there is an actress who both brothers are drawn to – yet another example of their lifelong emotional combativeness. All this builds to the dilemma the family face when Manus’s condition deteriorates. He lets it be known that he would prefer his suffering curtailed.

Ireland, with its religious and wider family pressures, is skilfully rendered. The voices captured for the varied cast of characters provide a strong sense of time and place. Depth is built through nuance – scene building and dialogue both sharp and affecting. Cruelties are at times shocking but in context add weight.

Characters are developed through carefully crafted detail. Nóra attempting to tidy up the seaweed on a beach offered a view of her pain that Hart’s antipathy masked. Cormac reworking shared memories gave insight into his desire to control the family story as understood by outsiders. The priest, although rarely present, added layers – subtly shading.

The brevity and wit in the author’s writing deserve to be savoured. In many ways this is a dark tale but tempered by the credence of the representation. There is no pulling back from the realities of a failing body – the emotional pain and physical repugnance endured as a loved one approaches death. Yet this is just one strand of the tapestry Hart weaves as he depicts the years around his father’s death. Life is lived through more than one event, however key.

Any Cop?: Told as a recollection, the reader knows Hart survives. The author’s handling of his tale ensures we care. The prose is never heavy but its impact remains profound. Much fine writing has come out of Ireland in recent years. This story can comfortably sit alongside the best.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: A Tale of Trees

taleoftrees

A Tale of Trees, by Derek Niemann, provides a potted history of British woodland, and details the devastation caused after the Second World War when farmers and other landowners were subsidised first by the government and then by the Common Market to bulldoze their plots of ancient woodland in order to convert them to arable use or conifer plantations. All land was expected to be managed with the aim of maximising economic return. To these modernisers, wood was simply a slow growing crop.

The author explains the difference in ecology between ancient woodland, mixed use replanting and regimented conifer plantations. The benefits of ancient woodland to the fragile ecosystem was not taken into account in the drive for increased food and timber production after the war. A complex habitat that had taken millenia to create could not quickly nor easily be replaced. The skills required to maintain such an environment can be lost in a generation.

This is a fascinating, beautiful but hauntingly poignant account of the damage caused by short term, ill advised human thinking. Many fret over the loss of ancient buildings, works of art and historic artifacts yet fail to appreciate the value of what man working sensitively with nature, of which he is a part, has created over many centuries. There is beauty but also utility. It is only in recent years, too late for large swathes of ancient woodland now lost forever, that value is being understood. A healthy ecosystem is an asset, even if this cannot be measured in monetary terms, and is required for healthy people as well as other living things.

To stem the destruction, support was required from government which had financially encouraged such actions – described in the book as being akin to setting a madman loose in an art gallery with a Stanley knife.

“He has signed a petition to parliament that has a straightforward demand: Give all ancient woodland statutory legal protection. Surely that’s not beyond the bounds of possibility, since there are so few of them?

He has sent me the reply he received […] Woodland cover in England is at its highest level since the 14th century. Perhaps this may be true, but […] If the paintings of the National Gallery were at risk, would we be happy with a response that said Britain has lots of paintings?”

With the benefit of hindsight it is difficult to understand how such desecration was allowed let alone encouraged, yet when there is money to be made such actions are still all too easy to believe. Protections are seen by some as a nuisance. Valuable assets to be managed for the benefit of all can be resented by those thereby prevented from maximising their personal monetary gain. Consider how art is purchased for investment potential rather than aesthetic appreciation.

Although dealing with a specialist subject the writing is clear and accessible. Anyone who has enjoyed the peace and beauty of a bluebell wood will have sympathy with those who fought to save these national treasures. What this book offers is an understanding of how much additional value they provided – their loss is devastating. That some are now attempting to do what they can to reverse the damage is a beacon of hope.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Short Books.