“Here and there, patches of flowers growing strong, even in the cold. They’re irises, vivid indigo petals coated with frost, a cluster in the middle gathered close with a skirt of petals draping down. They grow all over the island, all year round, and we used to have a vase of them in practically every room of the house. Raxter Irises, special for the way their petals darken once they’re picked. Like Raxter Blues. And now like us.”
What is this book about?
Raxter School for Girls has been under quarantine for over a year per the CDC’s orders. No one knows how or what happened; one day everything was normal, and the next, girls were sick and dying with a mysterious disease eventually deemed the “Tox.” Most of the students and teachers are gone. The remaining girls are left to deal with their bodies changing and mutating in horrifying ways without enough food or supplies, waiting for the next flare-up to kill someone else. How far will Hetty go when she believes her best friend, Byatt, is in danger?
This book is for you if you’re into cool but disgusting body horror, mysterious pandemics, and bizarre books that are overall unsettling.
Content warnings from the author’s website: “Graphic violence and body horror. Gore. On the page character death, parental death, and animal death (the animals are not pets). Behavior and descriptive language akin to self harm, and references to such. Food scarcity and starvation. Emesis. A scene depicting chemical gassing. Suicide and suicidal ideation. Non-consensual medical treatment.”
Rep: sapphic main characters, some side characters of color
Wilder Girls is eerie, beautiful, and at times, nauseating. I couldn’t get through more than a chapter or two at a time or else I’d feel a total dread consuming me, but it’s hard to say whether my experience was because of the global pandemic we’re living through or my usual propensity for all things lighthearted and romantic—something the younger, edgier version of myself could never have imagined saying.
I actually read an ARC of Burn Our Bodies Down, Power’s sophomore novel, first because I reviewed it for Pine Reads Review (will link here when it posts, and a longer review will post on The Sapphic Bookshelf July 14). I loved it so much that it prompted me to actually read Wilder Girls almost a year after its release, even though I tend to stay away from stories about pandemics/apocalypse situations/etc..
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading two Rory Power novels this summer, it’s that her writing is downright gorgeous. The details woven throughout are effective, grotesque, and definitely not in excess. Her prose is often poetic, but it’s also sometimes stress-inducing. She does cool things with her prose that you don’t often see in YA. Occasionally, choppy and incomplete sentences will appear to complement the urgency of different scenes, and there was an entire chapter told through disjointed, unpunctuated fragments with odd spacing to convey a character’s state of instability. Her writing style complements the mood and atmosphere very well. The entire novel has a chilling effect on the reader. It’s bleak, and it’s hard to imagine a possible ending in which anything good happens.
The imagery of Wilder Girls is something else. Every detail is cohesive; the sprawling island of Raxter and all of its foliage and inhabitants somehow match each other. The different symptoms that characters show throughout the book are so odd, yet described in ways that paint a clear image—although, sometimes you don’t want a clear image of what these girls are enduring. There are two distinct scenes that were genuinely disturbing, and they were placed so perfectly throughout the book in tandem with the mounting tension that reading each one was almost unbearable.
The characters are what made the book, though. None of these characters are particularly likable, and they shouldn’t have to be. Hetty, Byatt, and Reese are brave, and gruesome, and do what has to be done to survive. They aren’t molded for consumption. Hetty is willing to do anything for the people she cares about if it means survival, no matter how violent or bloody. Reese’s loss of her father and her feelings for Hetty form the foundation of her behaviors, and it’s difficult not to feel sorry for her. Byatt was, personally, my least favorite, but I think it’s because we don’t really get a lot of her before the conflict comes into play.
I love that Power writes queer books that aren’t about being queer. Hetty, Byatt, and Reese are all understood to be sapphic in some way, but it never truly becomes the focus. Hetty is motivated throughout the novel by her intense obsession with Byatt, but it’s a familial love. Hetty and Reese are less platonic, yet the story remains focused on the girls’ survival. The intense and complicated character dynamics in the book work so well because, I imagine, it’d be difficult to maintain healthy relationships in such a bleak and hopeless situation.
The ending is abrupt and not altogether satisfying, but open endings rarely ever are. People crave closure, and especially after the emotionally wrenching experience of reading this story, you might feel entitled to some kind of resolution. However, I can’t imagine any other kind of ending for Wilder Girls that wouldn’t have just felt like a cop out. Power makes bold decisions with the ends of her novels, and I love it.
Overall… Wilder Girls was an intense reading experience that left me feeling simultaneously hopeless and hopeful. The way the story is able to jerk the reader’s feelings around is one of its best features.
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