I honestly don’t know what I thought of this book – in some ways, I thought it was great, and in others, I thought it rather underdelivered… It was an experience, for sure!
Book: Wilder Girls by Rory Power
Read before: No
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Macmillan. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Body horror, gore, mutations, quarantine, medical experimentation, suicide and suicidal ideation, murder, character death, animal death. The author has a very comprehensive list here: https://itsrorypower.com/books/wilder-girls/
I have one over-arching thing to say about this book: do not go in expecting answers. This is a book to read and appreciate the weirdness of, because it sure as hell is aesthetically stunning, but it delivers almost none of the payoff you might be expecting. The plot, though pacey and action-filled, is very much secondary to the exploration of this strange setting – an elite boarding school on an island under quarantine, contaminated by ‘the Tox’, which brings out different awful mutations in each girl. The island itself is deadly, and the girls live in survival mode, relying on scarce food drops and a series of rules to keep them alive despite their bodies malfunctioning, until a cure can be found. It’s pretty grim, and it’s certainly vividly described, so take things easy and pay attention to the content warnings – however, even as a huge horror wuss, I found that it didn’t hit any of my particular buttons, and I was able to appreciate the weird atmosphere without getting too freaked out.
The book starts in a very dystopian way, as we see what passes for ‘normal life’ in a school where food is fought over, gun training is standard, and every day could be the day you die from a new and horrid adaptation to your body. The main narrator is Hetty, who has two best friends, Byatt and Reese, and getting to know the world through her eyes (eye, really, because she lost one to a ‘flare-up’, as they call the mutations) is probably the best part of the book. The atmosphere is wonderfully creepy, with just enough hints of reality to keep you horribly aware of how far from normal their lives now are. The book continues apace from here, dragging you along with it as things start to get even weirder. It’s very cinematic and easy to read – as I say, this is not my usual genre, but I could very much see this as a horror-thriller film.
HOWEVER. As much as I loved the way things unfolded slowly, I have a major problem with the book, and that’s that too much was left unexplained. I won’t spoil anything about what’s going on, but to be honest, that’s partly because I still don’t know what was going on. I kept expecting a big reveal, something that would make everything click, or something that would bring a whole new level of horror to the book in terms of the reasoning behind the Tox (how cool if it had tied into something that just made you go ‘OH’ when you read it), but it just never came. The book finishes so abruptly that I was genuinely left wondering if a final chapter had been cut. I just wanted a little bit more! I wanted to understand, but I was left with as many questions as ever.
One thing I did think was very well done was the introduction of Byatt’s point of view halfway through the book. I liked Hetty as a narrator, and I certainly didn’t find her boring to read, but I think adding in a second, very different POV voice kept the book from lagging in the middle as it otherwise might have done. It also gave us the chance to glean a little bit more about what was going on outside of the school (though as with the whole book, I still think this could have been clearer). Also, though it’s definitely not a romance, or even particularly romantic, there are touches of f/f relationships throughout that were nicely drawn.
I think, had this ended in a way that gave me that payoff for the fantastic atmosphere it had built up, this would have been a five star read for me, but the lacklustre reveal took it down a notch or two. However, if you go into this expecting less plot, and more just a masterclass in creating weird, creepy atmosphere, then you might well be less annoyed with that ending! I think that on the whole, though, it did give me a very entertaining read, so I think it gets four cats.