Wilder Girls by Rory Power was the first young adult book for me since my own young adult reader years back in the early 2000’s. Wary at first, it was a pleasant surprise that the language and plot wasn’t as YA as I expected at all. Wilder Girls is also a fine example of a YA book that successfully addresses more than one highly relevant or even controversial topic at once. I’d categorize Wilder Girls as ‘feminist sapphic horror eco-fiction’, which is why I decided to give it a shot when I discovered it at the library.
I watch the trees attack the fence, the dark between them thick and reaching. I know what the Tox does. But I thought something of my old life would still be here. I thought something of us would have survived.Rory Power, Wilder Girls (p. 61)
Women’s rage as a symptom of disease
Keeping the quarantine is important on Raxter Island off the coast of Maine, at a girls-only boarding school that has been affected by a strange outbreak of unknown origin. With most of the teachers and many of the students dead, the two main characters and first person narrators, Hetty and Byatt, describe how “The Tox” seeped into nature first, changing the appearance of plants, trees and animals on the island, before it took over their bodies as soon as they hit puberty.
If you continue reading, keep in mind that there will be minor spoilers!
Secrets are harbored by everyone and on each side of the quarantine. Whether the outside world knows about it is left to the imagination of the reader. On the mainland, unknown institutions seem to be conducting research on The Tox, while not being able to or not really wanting to provide a cure. The fact that they’re being cut off from communications with the outside world contribute to a suspenseful atmosphere of not knowing what, why, and how it hit them. There are hints at climate change, but I will not give away too much here.
The symptoms of the Tox are usually painful and hit them in phases, and there are certain analogies to misdiagnoses historically ascribed to women as well as to the cyclic nature of menstruation. They range from bodily changes and eerie mutations to involuntary convulsions, which had me thinking of epilepsy, but also of hysteria, the outdated, pejorative diagnosis of a physical and mental illness in women who didn’t adhere to the rules that society expected them to. Another meaningful manifestation is a sort of ‘animalistic’ rage that emerges and overpowers them during these episodes.
Women’s rage and anger has been and is still used against us and understood as a general ineptitude to living an independent, self-determined life. The girls and women on the island are being muted, both figuratively and literally, their rage is confined to the island. At one point I asked myself whether the erupting rage is a reaction to the Tox or to the quarantine and being kept at the mercy of their invisible guards. The ‘management’ of and control over the situation on Raxter Island by what I read as a masculine military unit speaks for itself – are these girls really a danger, or are they the ones who need protection from the island’s flora and fauna going haywire?
However, the girls are not defenseless. With guard shifts and gun training they’ve managed to survive for 18 months, fighting back whatever unknown threat tries to infiltrate the grounds of the school.
My reading experience
Reading this book with its recurring emphasis on “keeping the quarantine” after 1.5 years into the Covid-19 pandemic provided for some familiar moments where I caught myself nodding affirmatively – you’re not supposed to break quarantine, sure. But I couldn’t help but wonder whether 13–17-year-old’s would submit so easily to the military drill that is introduced at the school, and accept that there are no answers to many of their questions. But overall, the book is an entertaining read with a casual LGBTQIA+ representation. Above all, it is about a deep friendship between young girls and building a chosen family and support system amid disaster that somehow doesn’t feel like the far-fetched scenario it was presumably intended to be by the author. After all, we have learned to fear deadly diseases that originate in nature, and that we need that kind of care and support within our communities to make it through times like these.
Read this if you like dystopian climate and eco fiction, YA literature, LGBTQIA+ themed books, and if you have a strong stomach.
Trigger warnings: descriptions of blood and injuries, violence, death.
I do not receive any compensation for this review. This is a book from my local library. I read the 2019 edition published in the UK by Macmillan Children’s Books.