Title: Wilder Girls
Author: Rory Power
Genre: Horror, YA
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: July 7 2019
Hardcover: 368 Pages
It’s been eighteen months since the Raxter School for Girls was put under quarantine. Since the Tox hit and pulled Hetty’s life out from under her.
It started slow. First the teachers died one by one. Then it began to infect the students, turning their bodies strange and foreign. Now, cut off from the rest of the world and left to fend for themselves on their island home, the girls don’t dare wander outside the school’s fence, where the Tox has made the woods wild and dangerous. They wait for the cure they were promised as the Tox seeps into everything.
But when Byatt goes missing, Hetty will do anything to find her, even if it means breaking quarantine and braving the horrors that lie beyond the fence. And when she does, Hetty learns that there’s more to their story, to their life at Raxter, than she could have ever thought true.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did we get this book: Review copy from the publisher
Format (e- or p-): ebook
It’s been almost two years since the Raxter School for Girls have been put under quarantine after a mysterious disease started to spread amongst its girls and its dwindling inhabitants are on the cusp of something huge. Some are certain the cure is coming soon, others are relentless in their pursuit of power, others even are torn being resignation and resistance. They are locked away, cut off from the world, no word from their parents and only the meagre provisions provided by the government trickle their way through the waters that separate their island from the world.
The Tox has ravaged these girls. Killed quite a few of them and the ones left alive have endured body transformations that are the stuff of nightmares: a new spine grows out of the back of one girl, while another has something lurking behind her newly shut eye, yet another has open wounds that fester and boil while one has a claw. Other horrors lie in wait outside their gates, animals equally transformed into horrors.
The something huge that turns their existent into further disarray comes in the form of friends who will do anything for one another. Byatt goes missing so Hetty needs to find her. No matter what.
A queer, feminist, body horror story with healthy side of mystery and romance and with a weirdness that is hard to put to words, Wilder Girls by Rory Power is a very interesting novel. And if “Interesting” may not give the impression of being a wholly positive description, and perhaps it’s a too precarious assertion dithering between “this was super fine” and “ah, okay”, the truth is that it’s at the end of the day, that’s the impression I was left with after finishing the novel. That it’s a perfectly fine, interesting novel. It’s just… there is an unevenness to it that prevented me from falling head of over heels in love with it.
The book has a morose, almost poetic feel to its weirdness to start with that really appealed to me. I loved the central relationships in the novel, the fierce protectiveness of the girls for one another, (even as this protectiveness sometimes came coated with a not entirely healthy coat of manipulation) and the lengths Hetty went to protect her friends. No stone left unturned, etc.
The horrors and transformations that afflict the girls’ bodies are mirrored to the horrors and transformations to their daily lives: the choices they have to make in order to just eat, or the dynamics of power amongst the different groups that keep the school running precariously for example. Add to that the ongoing realisation that they are utterly abandoned – further, what is it like to rely on the people who are supposed to be protecting you only to be betrayed in the worst possible way? There is also a undercurrent to the mystery of the Tox that implies heavily that it has something to do with girls in general and with these expendable girls in particular.
However, toward its second half, the book descends into a thriller with a mystery at its core that eventually proves to be anticlimactic and disappointing when the time comes to have some questions answered.
The unevenness of that shift from a beautiful morose horror to a banal thriller was a jarring thing I never got over.
We could have had so much more.
It’s like that, with all of us here. Sick, strange, and we don’t know why. Things bursting out of us, bits missing and pieces sloughing off, and then we harden and smooth over.
I love a good body horror story. Rory Power (great name, right?)’s debut novel, Wilder Girls, takes this classic trope and breathes into it new, slithery, blood-spattered, jagged-toothed life.
The Tox is the agent of this new life–a contagion that spreads through Raxter, killing all the adult teachers (except two women), and irrevocably changing the adolescent girls at the school. For Hetty, the Tox took her eye, swollen shut with a creeper vine growing out slowly, slowly; for Byatt, it’s a new ridged spine, bursting through her skin; for Reese, it’s a new hand, like a razor-edged silver tail. All the girls experience flare-ups that lead to more changes, and, eventually, a one-way trip to the infirmary.
The girls are told that a cure is coming, though–a military outpost managing the island quarantine drops off weekly provisions for the women of Raxter, a signal that perhaps one day soon it will all be over.
When Hetty is given a much-coveted spot on the Boat Crew–the handful of girls chosen by one of the two remaining adult teachers to gather dropped supplies–she starts to see the truth about Raxter. And when Byatt is taken to the infirmary, Hetty is desperate to do anything to save her best friend. Raxter, the quarantine, the teachers watching the girls–all of it isn’t what it seems, and Hetty and Reese will tear it all down to survive.
Wilder Girls is a lot of things. It is, of course, a deliciously uncomfortable body horror novel, as mentioned earlier, but it is also a horror novel about the disillusionment, fear, and power that comes from growing up and learning that adults have been lying to you for your entire life. In this way, Wilder Girls is quite effective as horror novel and metaphor (if not exactly unique); growing up is fraught with trauma, and Power twists this axiom by expressing it via adolescent girls growing features like extra mouths or fish tails. This is particularly clear with Byatt’s interstitial point-of-view chapters, with her sense of being at home and coming into her true power because of the Tox and what it has done to her body–making visible the emotions she’s always held under the surface. For Hetty, the novel’s primary narrator, the Tox is an external adversary, and her disillusionment comes when she learns the secret truths Miss Welch and the Headmistress have been keeping from each other and from the girls at Raxter.
Body horror as metaphor for growing up, particularly for the sexual awakening of adolescent girls isn’t exactly trailblazing new material, but Rory Power does it well in her ethereal, melancholy style. Equally powerful are her depictions of female friendship and the prickliness of desire and shattering realness of first love vulnerability.
Byatt’s carved her initials over and over. BW. BW. BW. She does that everywhere. On the bunk, on her desk in every class we had, on the trees in the grove by the water. Marking Raxter as hers, and sometimes I think if she asked, I’d let her do the same to me.
Things go slightly off the rails, however, when the story shifts to larger conspiracy theory thriller escape story. This, combined with the fact that this novel feels like it was published a decade late–missing the boom of beautifully morose YA novels in the vein of Carrie Ryan, Courtney Summers and the like–makes Wilder Girls an initially promising read that never quite capitalizes on its full potential.
Ana: Wavering between 6 and 7
Thea: Samesies… but I’ll go with a low 7