Wilder Girls is a YA sci-fi/horror novel about a girl’s boarding school blighted by the Tox, a disease that mutates both students and wildlife. As stated on the book’s cover, this is a story for older readers.
Raxter School for Girls has been under quarantine for eighteen months and supplies are scarce. There’s never enough to eat. Many girls and almost all the staff have died of disease or at the hands of the wild, mutated animals, which stalk the overgrown forest on quarantined Raxter island. The remaining girls have banded into small groups to take care of each other and only Headmistress and Miss Walsh remain of the staff. Hetty has her girls, Byatt and Reese. Byatt is her best friend; her friendship with frosty Reese is a little more complicated, mixed in with romantic feelings she hasn’t fully explored and has never admitted to anyone but herself. They all wait on Raxter for the Navy and the CDC to discover a cure. Their only job is to survive long enough for the cure to come.
This is a fast-paced novel that I flew through in a couple of days. Whilst the plot pulls things forward and offers a backdrop, the real focus is on Hetty’s friendships with Byatt and Reese and interactions with the other girls, and the decisions she makes for survival. The psychology feels real and appropriately brutal, given the circumstances, though at times it’s extremely bleak. This is not a story that takes a positive view of humanity, though there are moments of levity and hope in the close friendships of the girls.
The ending is particularly brutal, surprisingly so, and was my least favourite thing aspect of the story. It makes sense as the darkest take of an already bleak psychology. However, I would have liked to see more explicit reflection on the decisions made, even under pressure. The ending leaves readers with a lot of heavy-lifting. I enjoyed the rest enough that I’d still recommend the book. Whilst the ending could have been rounded out more, there were some moral ambiguities to the story that I enjoyed, particularly around Byatt’s character, and these benefited from not being spelled out.
The horror primarily comes in the form of body horror, through the Tox mutations unique to each girl. Although the disease causes suffering, there’s also a sense that it’s freed the girls from unwanted family expectations, from restrictive school uniform and gender limitations, from an uncertain future. Nothing is more valuable than the intense bonds of friendship they’ve made, which seem likely to last a lifetime, however long that will be. The story offers a chance to reflect on the things we value under the worst circumstances.
There are lesbian and bi characters among the cast, including Hetty, who is bi. Whilst there’s romantic friction between Byatt and Reese, the story doesn’t offer a complete romantic sub-plot, so readers looking for one will likely be disappointed. Friendship is much more a focus. I liked the way the relationships were written as hesitant and clumsy, full of doubt and self-sabotage. A more positive romantic plot may have felt trite against such an otherwise brutal story, but as it was, Rory Powers served up something that felt real and this approach grounded the more fantastical elements. That balance between the real and the speculative was the main strength of the story.
Read as part of my Queer Horror Reading Challenge.