Could we teach this book in schools instead of Lord of the Flies? Pretty please? I say this even though I didn’t particularly like Wilder Girls, which just goes to show how unenthusiastic I remain about the idea that, 67 years and how many gender revolutions later, we’re still claiming there are no better books out there to teach to children. Wilder Girls hits me in the same place, but I think in terms of writing quality and gender politics it’s a lot better. Forgive me, Rory Power, for SF horror isn’t my style (and no, I don’t remember why I decided to add this to my to-read list in the first place). But you did good overall, Power. You did good.
The girls of Raxter School have been living in quarantine on their island off the coast of Maine for nearly two years now. They and most of the wildlife on the island are infected with the Tox, a disease of unknown origin that radically and unpredictably alters one’s body and, eventually, takes one’s mind (if it doesn’t just kill you). The Tox killed off all but two of the adults; most of the girls have survived, albeit changed. The book follows three: Hetty, Byatt, and Reese, an unlikely trio whose devotion to one another forms the foundation for some of the chaos that unfolds. Ultimately, however, Power follows the time-honoured route of a lot of horror: crank the climax up to 11, and then leave us with a cliffhanger that is equal parts hope and despair.
Psychologically, this book is terrifying. We got into the body horror from like page 1, and honestly I wasn’t much in the mood for it (so naturally, I finished the book that same night). Power’s descriptions of the transformations these girls endure is just graphic enough to set me on edge without causing me to physically, you know, lose my lunch. The toll of being isolated on the island—not even being allowed to correspond with one’s family and loved ones—is also palpable on these pages. These girls are abandoned, and even if Hetty (who is our narrator for the majority of the book) doesn’t quite realize it, Power telegraphs it through Hetty with frightening effectiveness.
Of course, in a book like this you are just waiting for that other shoe to drop, that twist. The revelation this was all part of an experiment created by the government from the start. Or that the rest of the world also got the Tox, and the supplies they’ve been getting every few days aren’t from the Navy at all. Or perhaps that this is all a fever dream, that Hetty isn’t on Raxter, that she is trapped in an asylum or other situation and these stories are her way of rationalizing what she is experiencing.
Obviously not all of the above are true, and maybe none of them are—I won’t spoil the book for you. In my opinion the twist is fairly mundane and unimpressive, kind of what I expected going into the book, and it leads to an ending that similarly feels like exactly what you would expect this kind of story to end on. So in that respect, as someone for whom this subgenre already delivers very little, Wilder Girls let me down.
I also wasn’t too keen on how Power explores the ways in which the girls’ interpersonal relations have fractured in the past couple of years. Yes, there is some romance here, some bisexual and lesbian attraction happening, and I like seeing that representation. But for the most part, we only scratch the very surface of these characters’ feelings. I want to know more about why Taylor has aligned herself with certain people. I want to see Reese, Hetty, and Byatt have more substantive conversations about how each feels about the other. There’s too much left unsaid here, hanging in the air, leaving me unsatisfied.
Wilder Girls thrums with a certain kind of power to it, I admit (no pun intended). The power comes from Power’s faculties for description, from her imagination and her ability to embed the Tox deeply in this world. In this respect, I enjoyed the writing, and I think that’s what allowed me to read this book so fast despite not particularly enjoying the plot. I could be persuaded to read another novel by Power if it weren’t perhaps this horror-focused.
But how will fans of this subgenre like it? Honestly that’s hard for me to say. Better than I did, to be certain. There is a bleakness underlying the plot that I think appeals to most people who enjoy SF horror. This same bleakness is why I tend to avoid it, and why movies focusing on one or two sole survivors of an apocalypse seldom interest me. I need a world pulsing with life and social complexity, whereas books like Wilder Girls ask us to consider a world where that complexity has given way to the simplicity of survival. That is a worthwhile question to ask, and it is one that Power explores competently.