Rory Power's debut novel Wilder Girls combines grotesque physical metamorphosis with the intense bonds of love between teenage girls to create a unique variety of feelings-heightened body horror. If you took the creeping biological corruption that one expects from Jeff VanderMeer and the angry, intense teen girl relationships centered by Nova Ren Suma and mashed them together, they would mutate into this — something fresh and horrible and beautiful.
The Raxter School for Girls is under quarantine. Eighteen months ago, the Tox started ripping through the faculty and students, killing many and causing the survivors to suffer unpredictable flare-ups. Second spines and inexplicable organs corrupt flesh, skin turns to scales, luminescence creeps, and eventually it becomes too much for bodies to handle. It isn't just the school that's changing — the whole island where it sits is being mutilated by the Tox, from its strange, blue-hued irises to the wild, mutating animals who menace the school's gates.
Hetty and her friends Byatt and Reese are just trying to survive. Trapped inside the school by the quarantine, their bond keeps them safe — at least, as safe as anyone can be with the constant threat of Tox symptoms and a lack of adequate supplies. But even though they sleep together, eat together, and look out for one another, unspoken tensions threaten to rupture their friendship even as the Tox does the same to their bodies.
It comes to a head when Hetty is unexpectedly chosen for Boat Shift — the one job that grants girls an exception to the all-important quarantine. One of the two remaining faculty members is allowed to leave the school grounds with a small team of girls to travel to the docks and retrieve regular supply shipments. Hetty never asked for the job, but she isn't about to turn down the chance for something different and important. She immediately realizes that her new role comes with a lot of secrets and a steep price, and when Byatt has a flare-up and disappears, it seems like everything might fall apart.
This is a fast read, meant to be gripped tightly in tense fingers so that for the span of a few hours, the Raxter School for Girls is all that exists, and we too are subject to the quarantine. An intense reading experience also further conveys the book's heightened, permeating sense of lush nature turned uncanny, of beautiful fruits riddled with worms and rot, and of love so desperate and strong it teeters on the edge of destruction. As the girls of Raxter are consumed and altered by the Tox, readers will be consumed and altered by Wilder Girls.
For this is not a case where suffering makes our characters better people. It's not the sort of moralistic YA that tells the reader to look for salvation in selflessness and kindness to all. If anything, the hardships make Hetty, Byatt, and Reese more intensely themselves — utterly dedicated to each other and to survival, no matter what the cost. The people who were supposed to protect them have failed, and all they can do is try to save themselves, even though they know the Tox has made them monstrous.
There's something deeply empowering about that, even if it's also troubling. Living in a time when teenagers are looking toward a future of imminent disastrous climate change and social upheaval, this sort of "protect your chosen family of mutants at all costs" attitude makes a lot of sense. The people in charge are letting it all fall apart, so maybe it's no longer a good plan to blindly follow the rules and assume that will see us through in one piece. More and more, I think teen readers want books with teeth, and Wilder Girls has more than its fare share — perhaps another unexpected result of the Tox.
I realize that sounds like a lot for a fairly short YA horror novel to carry on its shoulders. It's possible that I'm reading too much into it — but I don't think so. Wilder Girls is as sharp as a blade used to cut out corruption, and I think it wants to cut us deep. Enter the quarantine at your own risk.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.