The students at Raxter School for Girls have been stuck on their island for two years. Those of them that are left anyway. In the opening three chapters, we follow Hetty – a quiet, thoughtful 17-year-old who has been living with the Tox and it’s effects alongside her two best friends Byatt and Reese.
“We had to burn the books for warmth, and wondering wasn’t fun anymore.”
The obvious comparison would be the 1954 novel by William Golding, ‘Lord of the Flies’. An attempt to maintain order, ‘at first’, before human nature, fear and the uncontrollable slide into chaos. But this works in concept only. A slightly more contemporary comparison could be made for The Maze Runner, and ‘The Flare’ plague which kills millions and the young men and women experimented in on aid of a cure.
But Wilder Girls is a horror. It’s a monster all its own.
The opening chapter may fool you into thinking the fast-paced drama is where the tension will build, but it’s the quiet moments of discomfort that are really powerful. Hetty, for me anyway, has the quietest way of describing horrific scenes of blood, and pain, and ‘Tox’ as mere facts. It’s hard to read, because imagining it is unavoidable. There isn’t a single character I don’t empathize with, even though they’re wildly different, and dying/grieving in their own way.
Maybe it’s the Maine setting, the creepy Navy who seem to micromanage every part of the situation – except the one that matters, getting the girls a cure- or maybe it’s just I just don’t read a lot of stand-alone horror, but Wilder Girls has some Stephen King tang to it. It’s supernatural, and creepy. Dark, mysterious and dangerous.
I really enjoyed the way ‘time passing’ is shown in little motifs. Little ‘talismans’. The idea that the Tox isn’t one wave of pain and suffering, but a cyclical plague which follows the ‘seasons’. That girls fall ‘headlong into puberty’ before the Tox comes for them. That their symptoms are similar, but cruelly different. That the only two adults, Welch and Headmistress, suffer too, with the implicit further suffering of having to keep order amongst the girls who can become ‘feral’ or try to kill themselves.
Wilder Girls is compelling and thought-provoking. Cold, cruel and powerful. A Must-Read for 2020.