Bee reviews Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Wilder Girls by Rory Powers

Spoiler Warning

Trigger Warnings: body horror, gore, violence

The things I heard about Wilder Girls before I picked it up:

  • Lord of the Flies-esque, but with girls
  • Body horror
  • Secrets and lies
  • Queer girls

And needless to say, I was sold. If the ethereal and captivatingly disturbing cover weren’t enough, these tidbits promised something dark and twisted that appealed to my love of the grotesque and monstrous girls in love.

Wilder Girls centres on the students of Raxter, an all-girls boarding school on an island off the coast of Maine. The school has been quarantined after an outbreak of an untraceable disease called the Tox, which manifests itself in different ways for whoever contracts it: second spines bursting through the skin, scales growing over limbs, unhealed blisters and sores which ooze and bleed without relief. In the worst cases, the Tox turns the girls feral and violent, forcing their peers to put them down like animals. The core trio of girls are Hetty, Byatt, and Reese, close-knit friends who distance themselves from the others for their own protection. Hetty is connected to Byatt like a sister, and secretly yearns for something more with Reese, which is threatened when Hetty is put on the team which collects the shipments of supplies and rations from the mainland, and becomes privy to some dark truths.

In reading Wilder Girls, I was consistently reminded of the movie Annihilation–yes, that one with Gina Rodriguez with an undercut, a tank top, and a big gun. The blending of nature and bodies, the twisted manifestations of the Tox, reminded me a lot of the visuals in the film. There are also mutant animals which threaten the girls’ lives; there is a particularly memorable scene with a disfigured bear which is a little too reminiscent of the scene from Annihilation. However, the similarities weren’t a problem for me. I loved the film and its aesthetic, especially the way it presented twisted depictions of bodies and a rawness in all its women. After watching it, I definitely wanted more. Wilder Girls gave it to me. Rory Power’s descriptions are evocative and visceral, creating that same rawness which worked so well for me in the film. Maybe these similarities are subjective, but I do think it’s a worthy comparison, especially if you were a fan of the movie. I may have to pick up the book by Jeff VanderMeer to see if the similarities are that concrete.

There are obvious differences, too. The relationships between Byatt, Hetty, and Reese are a major drawcard; they are strong and complicated, and the girls are all sharp in their own ways, making for compelling reading. The attraction between Hetty and Reese isn’t soft by any means: it’s a rough sort of yearning, with a desperation that I feel we don’t normally see in YA. It, like the rest of the book, is dark–and it’s deliciously appealing.

The ultimate answer of what the Tox is, and the involvement of a navy research base, did seem a bit rushed to me, and left me with more questions than answers. If you are looking for a book which neatly ties everything up and reveals the entire mystery to you, then this is perhaps not a good choice. But I did enjoy that as more plot points at revealed, the conspiracy deepens and the desperation heightens. One thing that can definitely be said about the characters is that none of them are perfect, and none of them are selfless. In fact, they are all selfish in their own ways, and it makes for some realistic and believable reading.

Wilder Girls, for me, is a highly recommended read. It is a violent representation of girlhood of a kind that is rare in fiction, and deserves to be celebrated. It helps that the characters are well realised and have depth, and the whole thing is grounded in female friendship. It is also served well by Power’s frank and unrelenting prose. This is a book which I feel can tempt even people who don’t usually read YA–fans of horror in general should find something to like. I for one am definitely looking forward to reading more of Power’s work in the future.

Bee reviews A Love Story for Bewildered Girls by Emma Morgan

A Love Story for Bewildered Girls by Emma Morgan

Sometimes you take a chance on a book, and it pays off in a weird, indefinable way. This is the only way I can describe my experience with A Love Story for Bewildered Girls by Emma Morgan. Actually, it turned me into the bewildered girl the book addresses in the title. I tacked it on to a book order after reading the tagline, an impulse purchase if there ever was one, and went in to reading knowing approximately nothing. That tempting tagline? “Grace loves a woman. Annie loves a man. Violet isn’t too sure. But you will love them all…”

Although I wasn’t exactly sold on the use of ellipses, it was enough to pique my interest. It turned out to be a 75% accurate summary of the book. Bewildered Girls is told through the perspective of three women, which are revealed to be intertwined in different ways: Grace, a lesbian psychologist who is unsatisfied with her love life; Annie, a high powered lawyer who has high expectations for the men she dates; and Violet, who has a string of unsuccessful sexual encounters with men behind her, and lives with crippling anxiety which she calls “the fear”. Each woman is fairly neurotic in her own way, but it is questionable to me whether this made her relatable, or even (as promised by that tagline) loveable.

This is the sort of book that doesn’t quite have a plotline–rather, it delves into the goings on of these three women and takes the reader along with them, offering slices of three lives which turn out to be more entangled than would be initially suggested. The book is written as a series of titled scenes rather than chapters, allowing the reader to dip in and out of perspectives quickly. It keeps the pace quick and engaging, which is good because to be honest, not much happens. I don’t mean that in a bad way, whatever it may seem–I personally enjoy books that are more character studies than anything else.

What plot there is focuses on the budding relationships with each of the women’s love interests. Grace meets a woman at a party and becomes, for lack of a better word, obsessed with her. Annie starts seeing a man who somehow manages to live up to the high standards of etiquette and personal grooming which she holds those in her life to. The biggest surprise is that Violet, on a reluctant night out, meets a woman and decides to sleep with her. This is the relationship which was the most interesting to me; it has ripple effects across the other two characters’ lives, and I would argue it is the central focus of the whole book. Given that Violet is so reluctant to label her mental illness in any tangible way, it is unsurprising that dating a woman doesn’t lead to any redefinition of her sexuality. It causes more of an upset for Annie, who is Violet’s overprotective roommate and can’t get her head around her friend dating a woman when she had previously dated men.

This was just one of the behaviours that made it really difficult for me to like any of the characters. Another block, for me, included Grace patently not listening to what the woman she is dating tells her about her wants and needs. When I say that I didn’t end up loving them all, as the tagline promised, this is what I mean: I enjoyed reading about them, and I was drawn in by their character voices and entertained by their lives, but for me they were fundamentally unlikable characters. I still think it’s a triumph of sorts for a book, to be full of characters the reader doesn’t like and still be something they are glad they read. Despite the attitudes and actions of the characters which I found to be irritating, the narrative voice was smooth and sometimes whimsical, with a strong sense of personality that was fundamentally charming. I did want things to turn out for the three women, even though I didn’t think any of them were particularly good people.

It could be said that Morgan allows her women to be messy, which is something I really appreciate about A Love Story for Bewildered Girls. The characters are definitely dimensional and complicated, as are the relationships between them. It is often funny, and also often annoying, but in a way that ultimately made me want to keep reading.