Wait, and stay alive. This has been the motto for the inhabitants of the Raxter School for Girls over the past eighteen months. Since a mysterious plague they call “the Tox” began infecting the inhabitants of the island and changing them in odd and gruesome ways. Almost all of the adults have died, while the girls suffer flare ups of the Tox that twist them, body and soul, inside and outside. They have been promised a cure from the mainland, and so they wait.
Hetty, Byatt, and Reese have known each other since the day Hetty and Byatt arrived at Raxter, where Reese’s father was the caretaker. An inseparable trio, though with different links between them. When Byatt disappears after a flare up of the Tox, Hetty and Reese will do whatever it takes to get her back, even if it means breaking the quarantine on the house and grounds. What they find may change everything.
While there is certainly no shortage of dystopia in modern teen literature, it’s much rarer to find real horror. Rory Power’s debut novel blends horror, especially body horror, with a deep connection to the way teenaged girls in particular live in the world and are treated by it. Power draws parallels between the warping effects of the Tox and the changes wrought by puberty. Those left in quarantine on the island have created a society that functions within the vague outlines of their old school but cannot help being shaped by their circumstances. What do you do when the wolves outside the walls are not only real, but monstrous? What if you, or the friend who sits beside you, might become a wolf within the walls at any moment?
Eileen Stevens, narrating as Hetty, carries most of the forward plotline. She fits her voice perfectly to the style of the story. She is somewhat detached when recounting the ordinary horrors that have come to fill the days of the Raxter girls, but Hetty’s genuine emotions are evident when she’s interacting with Byatt and Reese, or the people who might keep them from her. Stevens’s voicing of Reese during Hetty’s narration is also particularly good, rougher and more stoic than Hetty, but not robotic or a parody of those who hide their feelings deep.
Jesse Vilinsky has a smaller, but no less important role in narrating as Byatt. Her sections of the book are less plot driven and more stream of consciousness. However, they are critical in understanding what’s happening as a result of the Tox and the putative search for a cure. Vilinsky’s Byatt is tentative, unsure of what’s happening around her, fighting through confusion to attempt to make herself known.
Wilder Girls plays with ideas about memory, complex social interaction, and what is right versus what is good. The elliptical writing style and resolution (or lack thereof) could be frustrating to those who prefer a straightforward narrative. But for anyone who wants something a little out of the ordinary, or just plain weird, this may be the audiobook for you. The performances are a perfect match for the story and will draw the listener in to this very unusual journey.
Wilder Girls, by Rory Power, read by Eileen Stevens and Jesse Vilinsky. 8 hours, 49 minutes. Blackstone Audio, 2019.