Wilder Girls by Rory Power (release date 7/9/19)
Genre: YA weird fiction
Rating: 4 stars
A lot of people have been calling Wilder Girls a female version of Lord of the Flies; I’d say it’s much more of a YA take on Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, since both involve an all-female cast, weird fiction focused on a very specific environment, and an overlying sense of unease and strangeness. Unlike Vandermeer’s creation of humid Florida otherness, Wilder Girls is set on an isolated island off the coast of Maine, home to an all-girls boarding school that has been completely cut off from the mainland for a year and a half after the outbreak of a mysterious disease referred to as the Tox. The Tox, along with causing intermittent episodes of crippling pain and affliction, warps the bodies of the girls to suit its opaque purposes: one character’s hair glows, and the cover illustration shows a metaphorical look at the potential for beauty in these mutations, but the reality for the rest of the girls is much more sinister: our main character Hetty’s eye has been sealed shut, her best friend Byatt has grown a second, alien spine, and our hair-glowing friend Rae can’t use one of her hands.
The disease and quarantine, however, are affecting more than just the girls’ bodies. The majority of their teachers are dead, and no other adults are left alive on the island; the Navy sends food intermittently, but it’s never enough; and the girls are forced to be constantly vigilant against the threat of attack from Tox-warped wild animals from the surrounding forest. Contact with the outside world is almost non-existent, but the girls still left alive have become survivors, adapting to an unthinkable new reality with pragmatism and strict adherence to the new rules of their lives. Until a few crucial things change: Hetty acquires new information that makes her question what’s really happening on the island, and her best friend, seemingly irrepressible, blue-blooded, capricious Byatt, goes missing.
I love weird fiction (think Vandermeer or Samanta Schweblin) and am delighted to find the genre finding a foothold in YA. Powers creates an intensely atmospheric setting in Raxter Island that feels like a character itself, and the mysterious illness plaguing the island’s inhabitants is a constantly creeping antagonist, at times forced to the background and at other times reasserting its presence forcefully, throughout the other horrors that the characters encounter. Hetty is a tough, survival-focused main character, and I loved her loyalty to her friends, her determination, and her slowly developing romance with Rae. I also loved complex, morally grey Byatt, who I could easily read another entire book about.
Wilder Girls is fascinating and immersive, and I didn’t see a lot of the plot twists coming, but the pacing is a bit irregular and unconventional, which may bother some readers, although it wasn’t an issue for me personally. And I’m not going to give away any spoilers, but I do need to address the ending. I really don’t mind an open-ended or thought-provoking ending as long as it’s done well–Kelly Link is one of my favorite authors, for example, and all of her stories both end and begin ambiguously. But I didn’t feel that this was the case in Wilder Girls, and rather than feeling ambiguous, the ending struck me as unfinished, and unfortunately didn’t work for me, which is why I’m giving this 4 stars rather than 5.
Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read an eARC of Wilder Girls in exchange for an honest review.