In Rory Power’s debut, about 40 of a boarding school’s 100-student population remain. The culprit is Power’s complex, ruthless Tox, a mysterious force on the boarding school’s Raxter Island, a sickness accompanied by an unnerving natural flourishing––it makes animals grow bigger, faster, and more dangerous, and the human girls that survive its onset suffer periodical flare-ups––if it doesn’t kill them first.
Wilder Girls’ main trio is composed of the grim and worn-down Hetty, the compulsively dishonest and forlorn Byatt, and the cold and distanced Reese. The bond between them is supposedly the beating heart of Wilder Girls‘ tension––from page one, they tip-toe around each other. By page 100, dying for each other isn’t out of the question, and their lives are meant to hinge upon each other to the end and beyond. The kicker, however, is that the fast approach of grizzly manners of death (literally, in one case) is Power’s only tool to push them together. She doesn’t use their pasts very often, for the deep dread of recalling the untouchable world beyond their quarantined island; she doesn’t allow them to truly enjoy each other, because survival becomes more pressing than happiness; she doesn’t allow them to truly rely upon each other, because, of course, the only way to survive in their ruthless new world is total self-reliance.
The result is that at the heart of Wilder Girls––at the epicenter of its every emotional quaking––is a paradox. The trio care about each other, and they don’t. They have something to live for, and they don’t They’re proof of female resistance and friendship in the face of danger…and they aren’t.
But another paradox that lies there is Wilder Girls‘ view on humanity. The moniker “feminist Lord of the Flies” has been floating about, but Rory Power’s description of young people in crisis doesn’t reveal a hidden inhumanity to them at all. Some of the unravelings near the end suggest that it’s perfectly fine for Hetty and company to only look out for each other, but the text never makes way for it. The girls left from what was the boarding school on Raxter Island develop a solemn, matter-of-fact kinship, one that doesn’t suddenly dissolve or rot from infighting––and yet, when the impulse arises, Hetty crosses them and hardly looks back.
Nameless, faceless legal entities play a similar role. Quarantining, as we learn in the first few chapters, is the Navy’s/CDC’s/Some Monster in a Lab Coat’s solution to the rapidly-spreading Tox. The novel never leans into their anonymity, nor their disregard for human life, nor their pure detachment from nature. In doing so, Wilder Girls settles on having no Big Bad to speak of, but doesn’t take the risk of playing up the antagonist-less possibilities, either. The work could be a vs. nature conflict, or a vs. people conflict, or a vs. authority conflict, but in the end, it sits squarely in a rushed, unmotivated middle.
And, naturally, because Wilder Girls doesn’t settle on an evil, the Tox doesn’t pick a culprit. As a reflection on our treatment of nature, it’s only tangentially related to climate change, and even further from pungent personal guilt. Wilder Girls, as a dystopian narrative, lacks thematic unity––whatever it tries to communicate gets lost in a web of immediate thrills and inessential twists. The unwise choices of the human antagonists are unrelated to the distance and cruelty of the quarantine, which is as far as can be from the human-natural world interplay at hand.
Claire Legrand’s Sawkill Girls has a slow horror build in the stripe of Wilder Girls, but in the case of Legrand’s novel, everything leads back to the rot at the heart of Sawkill Rock, from the way the characters are treated to the failure of authority figures to address the consequences. Wilder Girls, with a sharper focus, could be the skewer to mistreating nature that Sawkill Girls was to the unkind experience of young girls––but the conceptual work of Wilder Girls is simply spread too thin.
To its merit, Wilder Girls, in the scenes where Rory Power’s vivid sensibility of gore is allowed to shine through, gets to be visceral and morbidly fascinating. Though, for better or worse, the outside world and how it’s coping with the Tox remains shrouded in mystery. By the end, however, we’re intimately familiar with the experience of having the Tox, as well as the experience of wondering if this flare up or the next is the one that ends fatally. When Wilder Girls approaches horror, it does so with detail and no degree of squeamishness. Emotions run high when they aren’t being bogged down; deep and throbbing biological horror takes the spotlight whenever it appears; and glimmers of a shorter, tighter, more secluded novel shine through. Were Wilder Girls a short story, or a hundred pages shorter, or had its eye trained on the interior, it would’ve gripped from start to finish. But the book we have is split between ideas, and self contradicting, and maybe, with patience, the things hiding there are worth it.