Book Review & Author Interview: Wilder Girls by Rory Power

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They told us to wait and stay alive.

Release Date: July 9, 2019

Pre-Order on Amazon

Price: $12.91 (hardcover)

Publisher: Delacorte Press

Plot Summary:

It’s been eighteen months since the Raxter School for Girls was put under quarantine. Since the Tox hit and pulled Hetty’s life out from under her.

It started slow. First, the teachers died one by one. Then it began to infect the students, turning their bodies strange and foreign. Now, cut off from the rest of the world and left to fend for themselves on their island home, the girls don’t dare wander outside the school’s fence, where the Tox has made the woods wild and dangerous. They wait for the cure they were promised as the Tox seeps into everything.

But when Byatt goes missing, Hetty will do anything to find her, even if it means breaking quarantine and braving the horrors that lie beyond the fence. And when she does, Hetty learns that there’s more to their story, to their life at Raxter, than she could have ever thought true.

Grade: A

Review:

Sometime this past fall, I saw Rory Power tweeting the cover of her debut novel, Wilder Girls, and the moment I saw it and read the blurb, I knew that I had to read it. Luckily, NetGalley hooked me up with an ARC cause I don’t know if I could’ve lasted till July to read it. This book fits nicely into my two favourite book genres, body horror and boarding school stories. I don’t know why I love boarding school stories, probably cause as an only child, I always envisioned going to one and being surrounded by lots of girls my own age. Fun fact: I almost got sent to a Catholic boarding school once, when my exasperated mum was tired of my teenage rebellious way and thinking it’d be a punishment, she promptly called a school up (I was ecstatic, to say the least). Sadly, not even the nuns wanted to deal with a rebellious teen, since they pretty much told my mum that I was better off staying home in a “loving environment” than far from my family. Still, to this day I kinda miss not having had the boarding school experience. So now, I vicariously live that experience through books about them.

But Raxter isn’t just any ordinary boarding school. Nope. This boarding school is located on an island that pretty much has nothing else on it but the school. So total isolation. The perfect setting for a group of girls who are having to deal with being quarantined by the military after contracting a disease they call the Tox. Now, the fascinating and maybe disturbing thing about the Tox is that it’s a disease that manifests in different ways depending on the individual. So one girl has a scaled hand (which I wasn’t sure if we were to envision scales like a fish or more like a dragon), another has an eye closed shut with plants growing inside of it, and another is growing a second spine. The body horror in this novel isn’t for the faint of heart, so if you’re a little on the queasy side, just keep that in mind.

But what made this novel memorable to me wasn’t the unexplainable horror that had taken over the girls’ bodies, but rather, the resilience these girls had, and strong bonds of friendship. On several occasions, it would’ve been easier for the protagonist, Hetty to simply give up on her friends and herself and just be. But she doesn’t give up, even when things are looking rather bleak (and boy do things get bleak fast in this novel!).

I know some have made comparisons of this novel to be the feminist response to Lord of the Flies, however, the fact that both novels have an island setting is the only similarity I could find, since Wilder Girls isn’t really a novel about the students created their own sense of structure as there are still adults who supervise the girls. Wilder Girls is more a celebration of sisterhood in the face of adversity, and the lengths one would go to in the name of friendship.

It’s a wild and dangerous ride, but one that is worthwhile.

*Thank you so much to NetGalley and Delacorte Press for the digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

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Follow Rory on Twitter! / Photo credit: Rory Power

Short Q & A with the Author:

Why did you select an island as the location for Raxter? Is it to play upon the sense of isolation?

Choosing an island as the setting was mostly down to instinct and initial inspiration – a visit I made to an island in North Carolina was the first thing that made me want to write this book – but the more I worked on the story, the more it became clear to me that there was really no other place to set the book. I love books with closed communities, places where nobody leaves and nobody new ever arrives, so of course I wanted to write one of my own. I also think so much of Hetty’s story is about being on your own and having to fend for yourself. Setting the book on an island and physically cutting the girls off from the outside world was definitely a way to take that feeling and make it literal.

The reader only received tiny details about the girls’ lives before Raxter. It almost felt like they preferred staying at a boarding school rather than being home. Was Raxter more home to girls like Hetty and Byatt than their actual homes?

For Hetty and Byatt, I think Raxter is more home to them. They both find something at the school, and in their friendship with each other, that defines them, I think, and so compared to the lives they left behind, I think Raxter is what really matters. There are probably other girls at the school that don’t feel similarly, but as far as our main characters go, the idea of going back to their old lives isn’t all that relevant to them.

The fascinating thing about the Tox (the disease that has overtaken the island) is that it manifests in different ways in different people. Was the way the Tox affected the girls attributed to their character? For example, Mr. Harker we know he was a gardener for the school, and when we see him infected, he’s got plants growing inside of him. As for Byatt having a double spine, it seemed almost an indication of how she needed to grow a backbone in order to stand up to her mother. 

I love that interpretation! Some of what the Tox does is just based off aspects of my research that I thought were cool – Taylor, for instance, gets a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to her mutation, which is based off the lateral line you find in fish, a physical feature that helps them coordinate motion when they’re swimming in a school. But some of it also ties into character. Reese, for instance, is a really guarded person, so of course, I had to give her literal armor-like scales.

I’m someone who’s interested in books or movies that explore the theme of body horror whether it comes to shapeshifting like in Ginger Snaps or Blue My Mind, or a change that begins manifesting when you’re a teenager that you have no control over like in Teeth. Why do you think that YA is the best genre to explore body horror?

I think YA is so much about agency, about taking control of your own life for the first time, or about finding yourself unable to do that. For a lot of young people, this ties in a lot with body autonomy. So I think thematically YA lends itself to body horror, which explores physical transformation and a loss of that physical autonomy. They dovetail together really well and lend meaning to each other.

I know some may draw similarities between your novel and the novel Annihilation, but what inspired you exactly to tell this sort of tale?

My inspiration really came from the landscape, and from wanting to explore a specific setting and atmosphere. My very first draft had the same basic plot, but I was using it mostly as an excuse to write about trees and describe the ocean. I read Annihilation, which is an absolute favorite after I’d written that draft, and it really taught me how to narrow my focus and find the heart of the story that was hiding in the mess I’d made. (If you haven’t read Annihilation yet, you must!)

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Film Review: Blue My Mind

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Going through puberty can be scary. One’s body undergoes so many changes, from hair showing up in unexpected areas, strange dreams, and weird odors, it’s no secret that many people find that time of their life to be both traumatic and off-putting. But what happens when your body begins to change in ways that are completely unexpected? What can you do when your toes begin to fuse together, you grow scales, and suddenly have an explicable urge to devour raw fish? Lisa Brühlmann explores how a young girl’s body drastically changes in Blue My Mind, the moment she has her first period and is navigating a new high school. Anyone who knows me knows that I have a strange fascination for body horror movies or books that embrace a coming of age tale (much like in Teeth and Ginger Snaps). It’s probably why my coming of age feminist horror story, Good Sister, Bad Sister also features body horror.

The film opens with scenes of a little girl near the sea, quickly evoking to the aquatic atmosphere that will be in the background throughout the whole film till it takes center stage in the final closing scenes. The film takes place in modern Switzerland, mostly centered around a high school. Mia (Luna Wedler) is a new student and is quickly drawn to queen bee Gianna (Zoë Pastelle Holthuizen) and her group of friends. But these new friends have dangerous pastimes which include shoplifting, recreational drugs, and meaningless sex.

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Mia struggles to fit in putting herself in dangerous situations all while she is dealing with her body changing in unexpected ways. Her parents, although clueless to her inner turmoil, do sense that something is wrong with her and decide to send her back to therapy. While Mia is more preoccupied with her physical malaise and decides to seek a doctor, only to run out during her visit when she feels like the doctor is unable to provide her the answers she’s seeking. Much like Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Mia’s change occurs without a rational explanation (at least in Ginger Snaps, Ginger is bitten by a werewolf and in Teeth, Dawn’s mutation was something she had since birth).

Mia’s isolation is palpable, and it’s fitting that the only one to have her back is Gianna (her mother left her to live in the U.S. with a new love and her dad doesn’t give her the time of day). The movie centers around their friendship which at times seems to resonate with queerness (there are several instances where it seems like the two girls are going to kiss). Both girls save each other from perils (Mia saves Gianna from drowning while Gianna saves Mia from a group of young men who have nefarious intentions). So, when Mia’s transformation is complete, it’s no surprise that the only person she thinks about calling in her time of need is Gianna.

Some of the themes explored in the film are self-harm (instances where we see Mia drinking salt water, which bulimics use as a way to induce vomiting and cutting away the freakish parts of her body with manicure scissors), alienation (the more Mia changes, the lonelier she feels), and body dysmorphia (where feeling like a freak, much like Kafka’s Metamorphosis, ultimately enables you to physically become a freak).

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In some respects, this film is also a feminist horror. The film often sees the males that Mia encounters to be self-serving creeps who have no regard for her feelings and only see her as a sexual object. But Mia isn’t a victim, because her changes allow her to grow in physical strength despite the fact that she’s emotionally breaking down.

As the film reaches its harrowing end, we’re left with the feeling that perhaps the only way to be true to oneself is to not run away from what you truly are on the inside. Even if revealing your true self will potentially isolate you from the rest of society. But is anyone really in need of half-assed relationships when there are better fish in the sea?

Recommended for fans of The Little Mermaid with a dark, Brother Grimm’s coming of age twist.

Watch the trailer.

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