Has the sometimes unrelentingly depressing state of the world ever made you dream of throwing away your smartphone and starting society anew? That’s exactly what Rio, the protagonist of Gabriel Bump’s exciting second novel, The New Naturals (after Everywhere You Don’t Belong) attempts.
Rio and her husband Gibraltar are young Black academics in present-day Boston, teaching “Black people to white children” and dreaming of making the world a better place. But after the tragic death of their newborn daughter sends the two reeling into a grief spiral, Rio decides that the only path to happiness is to build a utopian community into a hill near an abandoned restaurant in western Massachusetts.
As she tries to drum up interest, many friends and colleagues are skeptical, either refusing her calls or offering to get her psychological help. Then, a mysterious young billionaire, referred to only as The Benefactor, offers to fund the project, and soon, the community is built, complete with classrooms, a garden and filtered air.
Though it would be interesting to learn more about the day-to-day goings on on the hill, the logistics of the community play second fiddle to the people who are drawn to it, and their backstories and motivations make up the lion’s share of the novel. Among them are two unhoused men whose tragicomic journey from Chicago to Massachusetts calls to mind Waiting for Godot, and a disgraced former soccer star struggling with his mental health. There’s also Sojourner, a jaded journalist who’s growing more and more disillusioned with society’s growing indifference toward problems like police brutality, environmental crises and anti-immigrant sentiment.
From the first pages, the novel is fast-paced, and conversations feel occasionally manic, with characters talking over one another in frenetic streams of consciousness. But it's the urgency of the prose that propels the narrative forward, keeping you engaged and invested. Bump’s characters’ motivations maybe be different, but their relatable desire for community, belonging and a better world unite them—even if the pursuit of utopia ultimately proves elusive.