“The baby emerged from Bea the color of a bruise.”
This novel was nominated for the Booker Prize a few years ago, and ever since Americans have been a more regular part of the nomination process, something I have mostly negative feelings about (there’s already plenty of American literature prizes, and I like following the nominations of book prizes for book recommendations), I have been more and more curious about the books that end up nominated. Some are also big in the US like Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo (both of which won), but then there are more confusing or less clear nominees.
The novel itself takes places some time in the future, but because of the setting (the far flung wilderness) and the characters (atavistic survivalists) the exact date is less clear. We begin with the birth described above, which ends up in a stillbirth. Bea is one of the women in the survival group and has chosen to become involved because her surviving daughter Agnes was becoming sicker and sicker from a mysterious illness while living in the city. They joined the group, who with government permission have been part of an experiment about human survival in the wilderness, a natural space that is seemingly more closed off and more strictly protected in this future world. The general rules is that they must have minimal impact on the surroundings, no permanent dwellings or stomping grounds (no stomping at all), and must be on a kind of parole relationship with the forest rangers. A constant event in the book is the forest rangers exercising what feels like a randomly and ill-defined amount of power against them. As Agnes grows up and grows healthier, her world becomes the wilderness, and especially when Bea returns to the city for an emergency, more independent. As the novel progresses, this growing gulf between the mother that took her afield for health and the daughter who is inhabiting almost a new mode of being becomes starker as the situation around them grows more intense and dangerous.
At times I think this book is really interesting, but at other times, it also feels oddly anemic (like its characters). It hover in the space between symbolism and prediction a little precariously, but doesn’t quite nail either.