This book absolutely broke my brain. Left me wide open and incapable of forming complete sentences. I want it to break everyone; I need the world to read this book and be broken completely into tiny little pieces by this book so it can build us back up again the right way. Because this book knows things. It very appropriately seems to have a mind of its own, and it will get under your skin, you can count on that. It’s a slow kind of creep, as it snakes its way through you, but this book will devour you just as you devour it.
It is worth noting that I have never in my life read a Stephen King book. This is basically sacrilege as a born and raised Mainer, but that kind of horror has never really interested me. I was absolutely willing to try a feminist YA horror though, but I was not prepared for the feeling I have now. Wilder Girls takes place on a fictional Maine island, but one so similar to many of the literal thousands of coastal islands we have that Raxter Island is basically real. I have not read any horror set in my own state before. Now, if I had read some King books previously, I’m sure I would be used to this dread that has settled in me as I look around outside. It’s one thing to read a scary story, another thing entirely to read a scary story that references places you actually know and visit. It’s definitely left an even bigger impact on me than this book was destined to make, and while it is a little freaky, I am thankful for it.
The book follows a group of boarding school girls, quarantined on Raxter Island, which is home to wilderness, the school, and now, the Tox. We jump in just over a year after the quarantine started, so the girls are pretty adjusted to this life. Their bodies are being manipulated and mutated by something, which they’ve named the Tox. It gives some of them things like a hand covered in scales, a second spine, a blind eye. And from some it only takes. And when it takes too much… let’s just say they are at about half the population they were when it all started. We read from the perspective of Hetty, who’s 16 and forgetting what it was ever like to live before the Tox. We also get a good section of chapters from the perspective of her best friend, sister of her heart, Byatt, who worms her way into our hearts without even trying. But mostly we’re with Hetty, and she is exactly as flawed and human as we need a protagonist to be. She never should have had to shoulder the things she has or make the decisions she has to make. Her life shouldn’t have been this hard. But the Tox changed everything, for all of them, forever. But they’ve found a new normal, while waiting on the CDC and Navy to find them a cure. Until Byatt goes missing after a flare-up, and Hetty knows she has to do everything she can to find her. Including breaking quarantine. And what she finds when she does flips her life upside down again, and may just destroy the little life they’ve managed to build on Raxter living with the Tox.
The plot Power has come up with here would be enough to carry this book into being one of more memorable books of the year. But her writing style is what seals the deal, what will make this one I will always remember and throw at everyone I can until the whole world has read this book. It draws you in from page one and doesn’t let go. Even after you reach the end, you’ll still be gripped by these characters, by the tragedies that visit them and the things they uncover. The consequences of humanity are brought to light and it is nothing short of terrifying. A deep and primal horror sets in while reading and it doesn’t stop when you close the book. It keeps you thinking and fearing and wanting to do anything to fix this world. And honestly, more books should leave you feeling that way.
This is an author to watch, there’s no question about that. Power came out of the gate running and I am so excited to follow her work, even if it does absolutely terrify me. I had to make sure I had enough time for at least one episode of dumb tv before bed each night after reading because it was definitely too Spooky™ and I was not prepared. But that is not all it was. It was powerful and heart-wrenching. It was filled with unexpected twists and choices to be made that will break your heart. It showcases characters that love fiercely and stubbornly, that do whatever it takes to survive in an environment that is viciously fighting back. They will grow in your heart the same way the plot grows in your bones. It will dig in and not let go, and I hope it infects everyone.