‘Everyone loses something to the Tox; Hetty lost her eye, Reese’s hand has changed, and Byatt just disappeared completely.
It’s been eighteen months since the Raxter School for Girls was put in quarantine. The Tox turned the students strange and savage, the teachers died off one by one. Cut off from the mainland, the girls don’t dare wander past the school’s fence where the Tox has made the woods wild and dangerous. They wait for the cure as the Tox takes; their bodies becoming sick and foreign, things bursting out of them, bits missing.
But when Byatt goes missing, Hetty will do anything to find her best friend, even if it means breaking quarantine and braving the horrors that lie in the wilderness past the fence. As she digs deeper, she learns disturbing truths about her school and what else is living on Raxter Island. And that the cure might not be a cure at all…’
Firstly, I feel I should say that horror really isn’t my thing, but I’d heard good things about Wilder Girls and wanted to give it a read. This said, that horror really isn’t something that I particularly enjoy reading did colour my experience of the book and is probably one of the biggest reasons why I’m not terribly sure about it. On the one hand, I think it is written well in terms of the exploitation of language and structure, being that the sentence structures appear to follow a more abrupt train of instinct and thought, yet the overall pacing and arc is something that left me quite confused.
I may be completely misinterpreting the suggestions behind the Tox, especially as there is no clear evidence in the narrative that this was the definite intention (particularly as the Tox can be passed from women and to the general population/other creatures/etc), but my first inferences about it were that it was being used as a literary device – an extended metaphor, as it were – to scorn the long-held male belief that, in going through puberty and becoming women, girls become unpredictable and dangerous, akin to witches. This may well be my studies of Classical literature colouring my perception of the novel, but the emphasis on the Tox only impacting girls when they go through puberty and has fewer effects on women post-menopause seemed to go hand in hand with the Ancient Greek suggestion that young women are a threat, not to be trusted and possessed of something like magical powers. In the Tox being something that twists and turns the girls into unrecognisable creatures, in some cases, appeared to me to be mocking the idea that this is what men accuse women of being, often blaming our hormones when we behave in ways they don’t like, but, as said, I’m not sure that this interpretation holds too much merit, as there seems to be no definite conclusion about the links between puberty and the Tox, given that it’s also said to have been adapting the other flora and fauna (and also completely transforms more than one male character).
Wilder Girls is told from the point of view of Hetty, then her friend Byatt, who is subject to medical testing to explore the effects of the Tox (whether there are attempts to find a cure are truly debatable, given what happens to her). The girls’ school is surrounded by woods, the quarantine and fear of the forest things that are reminiscent of ‘Never Let Me Go’, especially in the dehumanisation of the girls by those who are supposed to be attempting to help them and the behaviour of the headmistress. Struggling to survive on what little they are sent, the girls have tried to continue to maintain some semblance of order, yet, as it to be expected, the social hierarchy determines much of their day to day lives, and they are not beyond physically fighting to get what they want when necessary, the lines between the desire to survive and wish to keep loved ones alive blurring unpredictably with no-one but themselves to enforce order (the remaining adults more or less leave them to govern themselves, beyond manipulating the hierarchy for their own means).
In my opinion, the reader doesn’t particularly get to know either Hetty or Byatt very well, which is one of the reasons I felt that I wasn’t entirely sure of motivations or what drives them. It becomes evident quite early on, by her own admission, that Byatt is an unreliable narrator and cannot be trusted to believe even her own feelings or intent, and while this serves to further distance the reader, her experiences are not something that fail to elicit sympathy. Hetty’s determination to find Byatt and understand the truth of what is going on in the world beyond the school and what, if anything, is being done to help them, is admirable, her determination and lack of forethought or specific planning exactly what one might expect of a young person pushed to the edge and set on surviving when everything that they can depend on has proven itself unreliable and turned its back.
Wilder Girls is a good read with a frightening premise, but, for me, the Tox itself wasn’t the most horrifying feature of the narrative. In its examination of what we’re willing to do to survive and steps we could take against other humans to protect ourselves, I feel it was all the more haunting. Thank you, Macmillan Children’s Books, for the copy to review!