Wilder Girls is a dark YA novel that combines a kind of lockdown tension with body horror and female relationships. It is a year and a half since Raxter School for Girls was put into quarantine after everyone there was slowly turned by the Tox, become wild and strange and having their bodies morphed in different ways. Trapped in the school’s boundaries on an island off Maine, they wait for a cure and live under the new rules forged by those remaining. When Hetty’s best friend Byatt disappears, she’s determined to find her, but the horrors of their situation don’t just seem to be the feral animals outside the fence also taken by the Tox.
Rory Power takes the mysterious outbreak trope and uses it to explore the bonds between teenage girls—friendships, romance, power struggles—whilst implying a lot about the darkness not only within people, but that might come from the outside when disaster strikes. This is a different kind of book set at a girls’ school, and it is not one for the squeamish, with much of the horror being around what happens to their bodies and the violence of what they must do. The tension is gripping, and the narrative is more focused on the here and now than on explanations or deep exploration of characters’ pasts; it is easy to see from this how it could be adapted into an (admittedly pretty dark) film. The romantic subplot and the depiction of Hetty and Byatt’s friendship are two elements that make it more than just a kind of shock horror story, and though some people might not like the ambiguity of the ending, it suits the outbreak narrative to not have a neat conclusion.
This is visceral YA fiction, real in its character relationships and bloody and dark in its content. It combines some of the best thing about young adult novels with cleverly used body horror, and though it will make some readers wish there was more explanation, it is a thrilling read.