Raffles Reads: Wilder Girls

By Emily Ni (20S03C)

Wondering what to get for your loved ones for Christmas? To us, books certainly make great gifts. And you’re in the right place—Raffles Reads is a new column which aims to promote reading culture among Singaporean students. The books, reviewed by Raffles Press writers, have been provided courtesy of Times Reads.

At first glance, Wilder Girls has all the trappings of an apocalyptic novel. A mysterious illness? Check. Quarantined on an island? Check. A rash protagonist? Check.

At the edge of Maine, USA sits the fictional Raxter Island, home to the Raxter Boarding School for Girls. Quarantined against a mysterious illness, the girls only have the wrought iron school gates for defence against the encroaching forest that has twisted in unnatural ways. Adapting to their dire situation, the girls have traded normal academics for firearm training and 24/7 guard shifts. As they use their wits and ingenuity to survive, the girls hold out hope that help is coming—as the line emblazoned on the book cover says, “They told us to wait and stay alive.”

And they have, for one and a half years.

But with the scarcity of information and the creeping urgency of the illness, the girls can no longer afford to wait; when it is revealed that the rest of the world has no idea of their predicament, with help unlikely to come, they have to find a way to leave the island. Taking matters into their own hands, they face independence—and all the horrors that come with it.

“A year and half of empty sky, of not enough medicine. We have to help ourselves.”

When protagonist Hetty Chapin gets promoted to Boat Shift, the heavy burden of ensuring survival falls on her shoulders. With this signifies a coming of age, a transition into a position where she is responsible for the welfare of not just herself, but also of all the girls. Hetty struggles with the weight of responsibility on her shoulders, and her troubles are only compounded when her close friend Byatt disappears. Driven by a strong sense of loyalty and the bond of friendship, Hetty risks her own life and sneaks out of the school compound to discover what happened to Byatt.

As a protagonist, Hetty’s fallibility makes her compelling. Previously a wallflower with two friends (Reese and Byatt), she is woefully unprepared for the unexpected ascension to Boat Shift Girl. Unused to being in a position of leadership, Hetty obsesses over making the right decisions. She agonises over how the airlifted supplies are dealt with and constantly questions the legitimacy of her actions. And when she inevitably makes mistakes, the guilt keeps her up at night.

Hetty’s decision-making is very much ruled by her feelings—evident when she refuses Reese’s pleading and insists on looking for Byatt. There are times when the reader could find her annoying, for her emotional nature could potentially confound the more rational ones amongst us. But her strong desire to please is not uncommon for many people; how many times have each of us agonised over making the best decision?  In that aspect, Wilder Girls teaches an important lesson: it is impossible to please everyone. Sometimes, doing the best you can in that moment is all you can do. 

“I understand what you did. I think you did the right thing. And I’m still angry about it. What is there to say?”

“Nothing, I guess.”

Reese Harker to Hetty Chapin

 

As Byatt’s disappearance is a catalyst for most events in the book, it was expected that she would be a crucial character, and readers would be curious about her. However, her point of view disappoints by being shallow and difficult to read. The author, Rory Power, could have done better with more insight on Byatt’s point of view. 

After landing in a military hospital,  most of Byatt’s conscious moments are spent in a haze of drugs and incoherent dreams. Understandably, medication has clouded and scrambled her thoughts, and Rory Power attempts to represent this with unpunctuated, oddly-spaced lines. Unfortunately, while this plot point succeeds in being visually disorienting and conveying the confusion and helplessness of Byatt’s inner world, it does detract from Byatt’s deeper emotions; the reader only feels confused deciphering the paragraphs most of the time. In fact, Byatt’s storyline overall seem a little superficial: there are perhaps two definitive happenings throughout her entire stay in the hospital, while the rest is blandly narrated and uninsightful. Most of the revelations regarding Byatt’s personality and relationships come from snatches of Hetty’s memories, and a short flashback in the middle of the book. Nothing noteworthy is revealed about the illness either, and Byatt’s part even features a token male character that seemed to serve no purpose. It is a pity so little is devoted to her and her actions before the end of the book.

Overall, the plot of Wilder Girls is unspectacular but solid. It unfolds rather predictably if you are someone who has read your share of dystopian/apocalyptic novels; the mysterious illness plot device is ubiquitous in the genre, and Wilder Girls delivers it adequately. Despite the somewhat cliché plot, the pacing of the book is balanced, with only Byatt’s section feeling unnecessary. And although the ending may feel a smidge unsatisfying with so many questions left unanswered, in light of the magnitude of the problem Hetty faces, this seems acceptable.

Additionally, a  standout point of Wilder Girls would be its all-female ensemble. In a saturated landscape of action novels with male protagonists (for instance, Maze Runner, Ready Player One, and Lorien Legacies), Wilder Girls surprises by focusing majorly on the complexity of female relationships, and the resilience of girls. With practically no men in the book (it definitely passes the Bechdel Test), much of the character development is centred around the girls’ personalities and decisions. It’s a breath of fresh air when the typical development of a female character is so often based on her romantic entanglements with others.

If you lean more towards romance or slice of life books, this book might not be for you. However, if you’re looking for a book that offers an interesting twist on dystopian books, try Wilder Girls

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