Two more books from the 2020 Booker shortlist

by Jennifer Bryce

Real Life and The New Wilderness may be the last two shortlisted books I read before the winner of the Booker is announced on 19th November. The only book on the shortlist that I haven’t read is The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste. Overall, I’ve found the books rather disappointing — possibly a result of my own short-comings, as I tread cautiously, for example, when I, a middleclass caucasian, try to immerse myself in the world of an Afro American gay man.

Brandon Taylor’s Real Life is a debut novel, so he must be congratulated on making it to the shortlist in this prestigious competition. The whole story takes place over one weekend in a university town in the US Midwest. It is a slab of life — a slab of a particular kind of life, where Wallace, a gay Afro American postgraduate biochemist, tries to exist in a world of insecurity and loneliness on the fringes of the life of his fellow white, confident, middleclass colleagues. I found him exasperatingly apathetic — he seems to have given up trying to fight for his own self respect. A colleague (white and female) makes a mistake in an experiment. She blames Wallace and the supervisor seems to accept this without question although Wallace is clearly talented at this kind of work and indeed was not responsible for the error. Wallace feels he must work, while his social group relax on the shores of a lake in the balmy summer. He is invited to a dinner party and blunders with inappropriate remarks about a couple who are there. I wasn’t sure what to make of his sexual relationship with a colleague who claims to be straight. And when Wallace mentions that his father died recently, there seems to be no attempt from his white colleagues to try to understand what this actually means for him. There was no drama, not really even peaks and troughs, and I think that’s what I missed, but the book gave me some idea of how a brilliant scholar might well give up in such a patronising, stiflingly confident white middleclass society.

The other short-listed book I’ve just finished reading is Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness. It is also a debut novel.

Set in the alarmingly close future, when our world has been ravaged by climate change and overpopulation, a group of eighteen urban refugees joins a kind of experiment to study how humans interact with the natural world. They are to live in a protected Wilderness State. Bea, her partner and daughter Agnes are a part of this group. They have joined largely because Agnes is being poisoned by the polluted air of the city — a place where doctors no longer specialise in paediatrics — there is no point. The world, in this novel, seems to be made up of overpopulated metropolis and protected wilderness.

The novel opens when Agnes and her family have been a part of the group for three years. Bea is giving birth to a stillborn baby. As Guardian reviewer Hephzibah Anderson says, ‘there is no keening lament, just cricket song and the soft tread of coyotes’.

The most interesting feature of this book, for me, was to study the relationship between Agnes and her mother — a relatiosnhip underpinned by Bea’s love and concern, but also dominated by Agnes’s feelings of betrayal, particularly when her mother vanishes back to the city on hearing that her own mother has died.

And this, for me, was one of the problems — one of the reasons why this wasn’t a great book. These people were a part of an experiment. Guards were observing how they were coping with survival — whether they were cleaning up their garbage. Yet it was possible to go back to touch base with that other life. After several years of malnutrition, illness, discomfort, wouldn’t more people have tried to do this?

Agnes has spent most of her life in the New Wilderness — she seems to thrive there and, by the time she has reached her teens, has become a natural leader.

I felt that Cook could have spent more time exploring the social dynamics of a group of people left in such a situation. I realise that when we first meet the group they have been in the Wilderness for three years. But there is no discussion about how difficult it has been to learn to hunt animals with bows and arrows — there isn’t description about going hungry because the arrow missed its target. These people are not allowed to have matches. Was it not difficult to learn how to make fire? These things made the whole exercise seem a bit implausible. Agnes is by far the most interesting character — and I would have liked more examination of the social dynamics in a group thrust into an experiment of this kind.