Book Review: Wilder Girls by Rory Power

“She’s never liked us much, not since she complained that there were no boys on the island, and Reese gave her the blankest look I’ve ever seen and said, “Plenty of girls, though.”

Girls are at the centre of this riveting and gruesome novel from Rory Power – girls in all of their mysteriousness and beauty, in their messy beginnings and messy middles. It’s no surprise why Wilder Girls is getting all the buzz – not only is the cover absolutely spectacular (I mean honestly, it sells itself), but the premise is beyond intriguing.

The island takes everything…

Told from the perspective of two “heroines”, Hetty & Byatt, and also featuring their best friend Reese, Wilder Girls is the story of Raxter School for Girls, set on a remote island off Maine, ensconced in wilderness, cut off from the rest of the world and shrouded in an unknown plague known only as “the Tox”.

It’s not clear what the Tox is, exactly, except that it causes horrific bodily injuries to its sufferers. There’s a fair amount of grisly body horror here, and it’s very well done – Power doesn’t mince words, and I found myself wincing, able to feel the agony and indignities of these girls. But there’s also a certain freedom that comes from their imprisonment – the girls cannot go anywhere beyond the walls of their school (the animals in the forest are infected too), and so, they have formed a series of small communities and societies within. Normal rules break down and their desires, needs, changing minds & bodies, become heightened by the confinement. But also set free, because what could be the consequences of a kiss between girls, when outside the fences, Death walks between the trees?

The only people who are allowed to leave Raxter are the “supply team”, who meet the Navy members that come over regularly to drop off food, water and medicine. When one of the assigned girls leaves the rota, Hetty is selected to fill her place, and the story truly kicks off.

A lot of Wilder Girls is brilliant. The sense of coming of age in chaos, it reminds me sharply of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When high school truly is hell. Raxter is brimming with changing bodies and burgeoning hearts. The Tox is as inexplicable as female desire and puberty.

Where the story fails a bit however, is in the strangely melodramatic romance between Hetty and Reese. I was expecting more from two people who had already been through so much. It was extremely “insta love” and “insta breakup” that it almost felt like Power wasn’t comfortable exploring it in more detail. There’s an unneeded heterosexual romance as well (miss me with that in this kind of book). Further, the denouement was so sudden that I can’t help but feel there *must* be a sequel. If there isn’t, what the actual…?

Wilder Girls doesn’t quite live up to its terrifyingly beautiful cover, but it comes close. If there’s a sequel, I’ll be reading it.

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