The thing you should know before starting Wilder Girls by Rory Power is that it is excruciatingly beautiful and excruciatingly brutal. The prose packs a punch that steals your breath away from the get-go until you’re 300 something pages in and still breathless, unable to catch your breath or still your heart due to the fast-paced plot.
It’s hard not to come across some mention of the book — a modern feminist answer to The Lord of the Flies — among “Best of” lists and recommended reading around the internet this summer. Usually the buzz falls flat after a book comes out as anticipation gives way for other books on the horizon, but I’m here to tell you that the buzz is spot-on and this is a book you want to devour. Devour it quickly before the story worms its way into your heart, sticking with you after every break and pause in the reading. I went to bed thinking about the Tox, about Raxter, and the island off the coast of Maine, of the girls with their inhuman flare-ups and the wild woods that threaten to swallow them whole. Rory Power vividly captures your attention as she describes the sickness that claimed the lives of half of a boarding school and its teachers. The urgency that I felt while reading made the Tox and the fate of protagonist Hetty and her friends even more important to me.
There’s no spoiler here when I tell you that things aren’t easy for these girls. They’ve clawed their way through the wilderness, clawed at each other and dragged themselves through, each day doing what they had to to survive. The cost of living day-to-day as the virus takes hold is insurmountable. And once you’ve started reading, even as the horror sets in, it truly is hard to stop.
But I think one of the main reasons I couldn’t look away was because of the strength of the Raxter girls–not only Hetty, Byatt and Reese but all the other students was inspiring. It drove the story as much as the mystery of the Tox and whether a cure will come in time before the whole school is wiped out. The layers of love and compassion that most of the girls shared in small ways (saving a scrap of crackers for each other, looking out for the smaller girls) kept the novel from being too grotesque. Hetty’s love for her friends (which borders on co-dependence but honestly but who can blame her) is buffeted by the kindness the girls show each other, even as their school falls apart. They turn on each other only in necessary moments — to fight for food fair and square, to steal a blanket not properly claimed for example, and never sacrifice each other needlessly. I could see this replacing Lord of the Flies in schools or at the very least being read alongside it. It’s more powerful in the way the girls lean on each other and don’t tear each other to pieces at the lack of humanity around them.
Another thing before I let you go to get your nearest copy as soon as possible: What blossoms and unfolds between Hetty and Reese, at the worst time, is so stunning and human. I loved the way they found each other. It gave me some hope when it looked like the rest of the book would be bleak. That through the darkest and deepest despair in their year and a half with the Tox, Hetty, Reese and Byatt loved each other enough to survive for them. It was deeply affecting to read and took me out of the grittiness of the setting. If the stunning prose, fascinating mystery of the Tox and whether this school can survive under its influence doesn’t sway you to pick it up immediately, hopefully the promise of this impactful relationship will.
I was left stunned by the ending in a way that I wasn’t expecting. I wish I knew if a sequel was possible but the book stands alone too well for a need for a follow-up, even though I’m desperate for more. Even then, if this is Rory Power’s debut, I can’t wait for the rest of her novels. I’m sure they will wreck me (in a good way) just as this one did. Go read Wilder Girls and find out why.