Mild spoilers ahead!
Okay, so I technically have already given a brief review for Wilder Girls by Rory Power, but a) it’s still relevant given the soon-to-arrive spooky season and b) I still have so much to say about this phenomenal horror novel. If you want a completely spoiler-free preview of the novel, you can read the mini-review here, but from here on out there may be small spoilers for the sake of a complete analysis.
Released just this past July, this is Power’s debut novel. It centers around a group of teenage girls quarantined on an island due to a mysterious disease. Hetty and her classmates, or what’s left of them, have been quarantined at the Raxter School for Girls for months, after a disease spread through the island the school is. Each infected individual has different symptoms: an extra spine, scaled skin, permanently bleeding lips. Hetty has an eye that is permanently swollen shut, oozing or bleeding during flare-ups of the illness. Outside the gates it’s even worse; the disease has made the local fauna different—monstrous—and made the plants grow into terrifying woods almost as menacing as the animals. Only three girls and Ms. Welch, a teacher, are allowed out of the gated grounds into this wilderness to pick up supplies dropped from a nearby military base. But with supplies getting scarcer and scarcer with every drop, Hetty and her friends, Reese and Byatt, wonder how long it will be until the outside world abandons them entirely.
When Hetty is chosen as one of the girls, secrets about the island and the disease are revealed that threaten the delicate survival of those remaining. Then, Byatt goes missing after a flare-up of her illness, leaving Hetty and Reese to uncover the whole truth of their situation and save her and themselves. However, the mutated creatures and disease aren’t the only threats to their survival, as Hetty and Reese are forced to question their trust in their teachers, peers, and each other.
Power does not dawdle in her storytelling, plunging the reader far into the crisis and action within the first chapter. This not only engages the reader, but also emphasizes the hopelessness of the situation. The girls have disregarded their memories of a time before the quarantine in order to focus on surviving, and thus it would not be relevant or accurate to show sprawling flashbacks to such. This becomes the methodology of the whole novel: focus acutely on survival, the limited experiences of the characters in the present, rather than try to fully explain the whole situation. Although the consequence of this is that there are some questions left unanswered (e.g. why was the sickness so different among individuals?) and some background information left unexplained, this allows the story to feel wonderfully contained. Therefore, it also feels real and fitting for the claustrophobic nature of the characters’ experiences. However, this is not to say that the writing is plain or solely straightforward. Power is a master of description, and in particular the depictions of both the girls’ environment and disease truly make the skin crawl.
Moving onto the characters, I have seen claims that Wilder Girls is a female Lord of the Flies, given the fact that it revolves around an isolated group of women instead of men. First of all, no, it is not. Lord of the Flies was a criticism of toxic masculinity, showing how horrible young boys raised in this masculinity can be to one another given no authority. To call Wilder Girls a female version would be to imply it made some critique of female behavior left on its own. If anything, the novel actively shows how functional these young women can be despite extreme physiological suffering and near abandonment by the outside world. Yes, they can be cruel and rigid, but it is never shown to be out of anything but sheer necessity. It shows women as human beings, fully fleshed out and thus flawed at times. I was in particular awe with how Power portrayed Hetty and Reese. As protagonists, they were heroic and caring, but they were also selfish and scared. Therefore, the moments they did save people, or overcame their circumstances, had actual impact to the reader. Furthermore, this made them phenomenal representation for both young women and the LGBTQ identities they represent.
To continue, I adored the novel’s depiction of illness/parasitism. There is a clear grotesqueness to the progression of the disease, whether that be the bleeding or changes to the body structure, that makes the illness seem truly horrifying. Additionally, Power roots this horror in the Western fear of the fractured self. That is, the women consistently feel as if there is something living inside them that is not themselves, and that their bodies are betraying them. Such a mature theme can be seen in classic horror like Charles Burns’s Black Hole, John Carpenter’s The Thing, or even William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.
As a final note, the ending, without spoiling it fully, is phenomenal. It contains the story and offers enough hope so the reader does not leave depressed, but it doesn’t veer off into some idealistic “and-then-everything-was-perfect” territory. It also fits the story perfectly, closing character arcs without offering a simple solution to the island or the disease. Moreover, it’s open-ended in a way that offers Power an opportunity to continue the narrative if she should ever choose to, but leaves the reader satisfied with the current story if this ends up being a one-off novel.
Overall, Wilder Girls is one of the most well-executed examples of sci-fi horror in YA literature I’ve ever read. It manages to have both accessible language and perspectives that feel like they belong to young adults, as well as complex explorations of disease and nature. I recommend it to any readers looking for dark horror in the YA genre and who can stomach creepy imagery. Readers who are interested in character explorations, or just well-written female characters, will also likely enjoy the novel. Even readers who aren’t fans of horror may find it worthwhile simply as an entry novel into the world of horror. Regardless, it’s definitely worth the read.