BookBrowse Reviews Wilder Girls by Rory Power

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Wilder Girls

by Rory Power

Wilder Girls by Rory Power X
Wilder Girls by Rory Power
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2019, 368 pages

    Paperback:
    Jun 2020, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Michelle Anya Anjirbag
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Powers' debut is a thrilling dystopian drama about a mysterious viral outbreak at an all-girls boarding school.

In Rory Power's Wilder Girls, the Raxter School for Girls, located on Raxter Island off the coast of Maine, has been quarantined for 18 months, and Hetty and her two friends Byatt and Reese are trying to navigate their new reality. No one knows how the mysterious illness called the Tox started, or what it even is. They just know that first the teachers started to die, and then the girls became infected with something that made their bodies foreign to them. Even the island is beginning to change. Cut off from the world in every regard and confined to the school grounds by a quarantine, the life the girls knew at Raxter has been completely upended. Only the Boat Shift ­– the girls who collect supplies from the docks when they are intermittently dropped off from the outside world – can leave the grounds, and when Hetty is put on it, her perception of their situation is turned upside down. But as things grow worse, and the girls grow sicker, Hetty, Byatt and Reese take it upon themselves to dig deeper into the island's secrets, and they are fully unprepared for what they learn.

The text itself is framed by an epigraph quoting Gerald Manley Hopkins' poem "Pied Beauty," which reads: "All things counter,/original,/spare/strange." The book is written in first person limited perspective, alternating between the points-of-view of Hetty and Byatt. Hetty is the far more reflective, unsure and questioning of the two, and it is her analysis that helps to put the epigraph into perspective, as she explains, "It's like that with all of us here. Sick, strange, and we don't know why. Things bursting out of us, bits missing and pieces sloughing off, and then we harden and smooth over." This framing sets the stage for the eco-dystopian mystery that follows over the course of the novel, and Hetty and Byatt's narration of the present, along with their memories, help further the reader's understanding of their plight. Byatt's perspective is far more wild and emotionally or instinctively driven, almost more representative of what they are becoming on the island, rather than what they had been before the Tox hit. The two perspectives together lead the reader not only through the events of the plot, but into a meditation on human nature itself, and how people might respond to extraordinary circumstances.

The novel has been billed as a "feminist Lord of the Flies," but in some ways that is an unfair assessment – not only does the narrative avoid William Golding's colonialist and reductive exoticist tropes of toxicity and implicit hierarchy, it is also an incredible and complex narrative in its own right and should be recognized as such without the baggage of the other, older text. Wilder Girls is a far more nuanced, far less self-indulgent exploration of human nature. The novel's only flaw is that it starts to offer a more multi-faceted exploration of some of its characters through piecemeal self-reflection on their own pasts, but does not go quite far enough in their development for this to have the full impact it could have had.

Nevertheless, Rory Power's Wilder Girls is a powerful novel and a must-read in this current epoch, with urgent messages about what it means to be human when everything is changing.

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in August 2019, and has been updated for the June 2020 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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