10 Books that Celebrate Feral Girls
Erin Slaughter, author of "A Manual for How to Love Us," recommends novels and stories about women living at the edge of their animal desires
This summer the term “Feral Girl Summer” spent weeks trending on TikTok and Twitter. What is a Feral Girl Summer, you may ask? According to actress Rebel Wilson, it’s something like an antonym for Hot Girl Summer: “it means you just don’t care.” But TikTok users who popularized the term have described it as more than simply not caring—it’s an active rebellion that advocates for embracing wildness, doing whatever they want regardless of how they’re perceived for doing it, and being guided by the impulses of the moment, whether that means showing up to a Zumba class hungover, or eating spicy chips and ice cream for every meal while binge watching the new season of Stranger Things.
While writing my debut story collection, A Manual for How to Love Us, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the stories that have resonated most strongly for me as a reader—stories that spread like electricity through my body, delighted me and gutted me. For me, those are often stories about messy, complicated women navigating the disparity between who they’re told they should be, and the truth inside them that defies borders of feminine propriety. When I say “messy,” I don’t mean “forgets to do the dishes and sometimes wears sweats in public.” I mean completely unhinged, living at the edge of her animal nature, animal hungers, animal desires. Desperate, craving, obsessive, emotionally obliterated, striving to make sense of a nonsensical world in an uncontainable body.
Now, as summer wanes and we begin our descent into fall—a chilly breeze creeping in, the leaves orangeing bold and bright before they wither to the ground—the girls are not finished being feral. Under the donning of cozy sweaters, taking advantage of peak latte season, and staring down the pressure to find the great love of your life before the holidays, a squirrely angst festers and builds, reminding us how close we are, constantly, to baring our fangs and claws.
If any part of you smolders with an untended wildness, here’s a list of ten novels and short story collections about women at the brink that will help you set the mood for Feral Girl Fall.
Shit Cassandra Saw by Gwen Kirby
Each story in this phenomenal debut collection is a building block of a universe where women’s joys and burdens swirl at the molten core—a world where women encounter abuse, cat-calling, slut-shaming, and a grab-bag of familiar misogynies, and instead of quietly tolerating them, employ (often fantastical) means to confront them. The titular story is a reimagining of Greek mythological figure Cassandra, who uses her gift of prophecy to glimpse a future where women finally get a leg-up on the slog of womanhood, a future with access to tampons, Twizzlers, yoga, and epidurals. Though Cassandra knows she is fated to be killed by the Trojans, she holds the satisfying knowledge that they’ll be reduced by history to a condom brand. This story, which opens the book, sets the tone for the unapologetic, fiery lens through which Kirby breaks the fourth wall on tropes about girls and women, redefining their stories with new vulnerability and power.
Bunny by Mona Awad
Awad takes a setting that might, on its surface, make some prospective readers roll their eyes—a prestigious creative writing MFA program at an Ivy League New England university—and dials the strangeness wayyyy up until it’s singing with electricity like Frankenstein’s monster, bringing fresh and grotesque life to what is at its core a story about feeling ostracized, finding authentic belonging, and the lengths we’ll go to in order to harness that most elusive monster: the creative muse. Bunny spans the final year of narrator Samantha’s MFA in fiction, where she is the outcast in a cohort of women who are all blonde and rich, with over-the-top affectations and wardrobes, forming a hive-mind of gushy pet names and obsessions with miniaturized food. Samantha reluctantly gets drawn into their group, and discovers that while she has been procrastinating on her thesis, the Bunnies have been collaborating on a sinister project that “transcends the patriarchy of language.” Samantha then becomes the hostage co-creator in this disastrous spellwork “hybridizing” the human and animal body, forced to contend with the dangers of fantasy and the desire to be adored into self-erasing oblivion.
Not only is Bunny a sharp, darkly funny satire of literary academia (elitism, class inequality, and fetishization of obscure writing trends, to name a few targets), it’s also just extremely fun to read. The blood and gore is an apt metaphor for finding your way through the surreal, occasionally terrifying circumstances of young adulthood, and the prose is so magnetic that you won’t for a second waver on following wherever the story takes you. This novel is not just for those familiar with the inner workings of MFA programs, but it might be especially cathartic for anyone who knows what it’s like to survive a particularly brutal workshop.
Luster by Raven Leilani
If you’ve been in just about any online literary space in the last two years, you’ve probably seen the appropriately lustrous cover for Raven Leilani’s debut novel, Luster, accompanied by the well-deserved hype about this gleaming book (it gained such rave acclaim that it’s currently being developed into an HBO series). Luster’s narrator, Edie, is a twenty-something New Yorker and aspiring painter, surviving (barely) in the gig economy, flailing under the pressures of mental illness, economic precarity, and her attempts to create art, when she begins an affair with an older married white man named Eric. When she loses her apartment and has nowhere else to go, she finds herself at the mercy of Eric’s strained generosity, living at his house with his wife and adopted daughter—who is Black, like Edie—while he is traveling. She spends her weeks there navigating the tension, and surprising tenderness, of her relationships with his wife and daughter, alongside the growing distance between her and Eric.
The book expertly lingers in that tension, unflinching as Edie confronts the complex web of power dynamics that underly these relationships: “If I’m honest, all my relationships have been like this, parsing the intent of the jaws that lock around my head. Like, is he kidding, or is he hungry? In other words, all of it, even the love, is a violence.” Through the course of the novel, Edie messes up, is withdrawn, is too forgiving at times and not forgiving enough at others, is selfish, is self-sacrificial, and sometimes says the wrong things—in other words, she is undeniably human in ways we don’t often get to see women, especially Black women, portrayed in fiction. It is a simmering powerhouse of a book, ripe with love and survival.
Fruiting Bodies by Kathryn Harlan
Looming climate catastrophe serves as the backdrop to this debut story collection, focused on the lives of women and queer people. These stories are restrained but teeming with creatureliness, like toxic algae growing under the still surface of a lake. Harlan paints her characters with eyelashes like cactus needles and rotten-soft loamy insides, drawing women into nature and nature into women, as if to remind us how thin the line is between who we think we are and the animal fear that can strike through us in a flash. This metaphor is best represented in the titular story, in which a woman suddenly grows a flora of tumorlike mushroom spores all over her body. She and her partner retreat to a remote house in the woods, where they live off the fungus in sexual-spiritual sacrament, at each turn aware of the danger inherent in consumption and intimacy, trying to divine the poison from the sustenance.
How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball
The protagonist of Jesse Ball’s innovatively-formatted How to Set a Fire and Why is a teenage girl obsessed with arson. Need I say more? It’s full of fantasies of cleansing fire that every misunderstood teenage punk has longed for, woven with the sincere optimism and grief that often marks youth and early loss. Society tends to label teenage girls whose passion overflows the bounds of respectability as “melodramatic,” but anyone who has been a teenage girl can attest to the helplessness of that age, and the struggle for autonomy and selfhood that slips out in sparks of rebellion. This novel is that struggle (and its consequences) made manifest: as in the narrator’s life—or anyone’s—fire can represent power, freedom, and wild fury, but such power is ultimately uncontrollable in what it destroys, and how far the destruction spreads.
Marilou is Everywhere by Sarah Elaine Smith
What’s more feral than an adolescent girl living in precarity, bathing in rivers and being raised by her reckless teenage brothers in the woods of rural Appalachia? In Marilou is Everywhere, Smith’s gorgeous, lush prose is wild as the weedy landscape of the young narrator’s mind. The untended grief that penetrates Cindy’s sense of self is fierce and unrelenting below the mask of her quiet compliance; there’s a self-annihilating streak inside of her, a desire to vanish from her body and the place she has been allotted in the world. Then, a neighbor’s teenage daughter disappears, and the mystery of her disappearance overtakes the small town, driving its citizens to desperate ends. Cindy has a clue that could help rescue the missing girl, but she keeps it unspoken while caring for the girl’s declining mother as penance for her guilt. In a refreshing turn, the novel evades the obvious trajectory of “speaking up as empowerment,” instead forcing Cindy (and the reader) to interrogate different kinds of privilege and accountability, and how one person chained to solipsism can set off a domino effect toppling the lives of those around them.
Supper Club by Lara Williams
In Supper Club, a group of women—strangers to one another, but all desperately seeking something the course of their lives have denied them—band together to enact a “living art project”; the resulting “Supper Club” events consist of the group breaking into buildings, ravenously gorging on fine food, wine, and drugs, and shucking off the inhibitions forced on them by their jobs, relationships, families, and the traumas of their past. It’s a satisfying fantasy of succumbing to our deepest hungers, and a howling, joyful anthem for the life-altering impact of female friendship. (As a bonus, this book serves up a lovely bit of food writing; the method of caramelizing onions detailed somewhere near the middle has legit made it into my own kitchen routine).
Bliss Montage by Ling Ma
This collection by acclaimed writer Ling Ma has remarkable momentum, each story deliciously crashing into the next, driven forward by the voices of women seeking surrender, validation, and destruction, punctuated by bright notes of humor. The speculative-leaning premises translate the emotional crux of the worlds they inhabit (among them: sex with a Yeti, a rich husband who speaks in strings of dollar signs, and a guest house populated by 100 ex-boyfriends). In one notable story, the narrator gets high with a childhood friend on the recreational drug “G,” a concoction that disembodies the user into a spirit-like form. The narration of the trip is woven with recollections of how the two friends relate to their shared Chinese American immigrant identity in different ways: disappearing into thinness for their mothers’ approval, or disappearing into the “default whiteness” of Seinfeld. It illuminates the complications of undefined desire between friends, and the jealousy of almost-siblings that trails those relationships into adulthood.
Ma’s narrators fain composure or indifference, but eventually a reservoir of animalistic hunger breaks through: “I want to masticate him with my teeth. I want to barf on him and coat him in my stinging acids. I want to unleash a million babies inside him and burden him with their upbringing,” the book’s opening story crescendos. Bliss Montage is what the title promises, if your flavor of “bliss” is less “idyllic drive through the countryside” and more “ecstatic drunken joyride with the music blaring ‘til the speakers burst.”
Aesthetica by Allie Rowbottom
The glory and grotesquerie of curating a public image in the era of Instagram is the focus of Rowbottom’s novel Aesthetica. Cultural discourse tends to speak of social media as an inherently vapid topic, but this novel proves there is nothing more philosophically interesting than how we choose to be seen (or unseen) in a time when many people are vying for attention, money, and power through one of the only truly accessible paths left for achieving social and class mobility: the sway of the internet.
As the narrator, an 18-year-old aspiring influencer, makes her way through a world of models, photoshop, and dopamine-floods of likes, we witness the meta-performance of herself—not just in photos and posts, but in every real-life interaction; through her, we learn that the result of clawing for relevance in an image-obsessed society is hyperawareness of your consumption and consume-ability. But for the narrator, social media fame is a legitimate method of transcending the circumstances she was born into:
“[I wanted] to transcend my mother’s fate and mine. To make more of our abandonment, my father’s leaving. I wanted to turn the story around and choose how I spent my time, made my money, presented my body. I wanted the power that came with certainty, what was real, what was illusion. I wasn’t sure there was a difference, wasn’t sure there should be.”
Parallel to this mindset is her underlying craving for the opposite: to disappear, and to see someone “without a filter…completely naked.” There’s also a profound meditation on mothers and daughters: how mothers pass on their understandings of womanhood, beauty, its restrictions and its powers, and how each generation’s daughters reject them, while being unable to escape internalizing their messages.
Aesthetica shows women simultaneously calculated and unbridled in their hunger for power, just as social media can be both self-erasing and self-creating, both spiritual and hollow.
Portrait of the Walrus by a Young Artist by Laurie Foos
I’ll be honest: I almost didn’t include this book because I worried it might be too feral. It’s one of those special, weird little heart-gems that feels strangely revealing to tell people about—like in pre-internet high school years when you’d fall in love with a band none of your friends had heard of yet. Portrait of the Walrus by a Young Artist is like that for me. This novel is completely unhinged, which I use as a qualifier of extraordinary fondness.
Francis, the teenage narrator, has just been forced to move to Florida with her uptight, perpetually dieting mother and her mother’s new husband, who owns an empire of local bowling alleys. She spends most of her time fruitlessly crafting clay sculptures, taking up the torch of her deceased father, a sculptor who became famous for a series of clay men with chainsaws for limbs—and in the height of his fame, suffered a mental breakdown which led to him barricading himself in the family’s basement (all of this is treated with more humor than it sounds like it would be). Francis’ bolt of inspiration finally arrives when she glimpses walruses mating at the aquarium; as if struck by a divine mania, her inner life is swiftly overtaken by ecstatic, reverent, and deeply horny visions of walruses. Her art prospers under this all-consuming obsession, until her visions begin to bleed into reality.
This is a book about art, grief, inheritance, and finding one’s purpose; it’s completely bonkers, surprisingly deep, and a tad Freudian. Not every reader will be on-board for it, but I would venture that if there’s a fanged (or tusked) part of you whose mouth drips in excitement at the description, you’ll love the ride this book takes you on.