I’d heard a lot about this book and was keen to see what the hype was about.
It opens with a dead man found lying in a marsh in 1969. A young woman, Kya Clark, always known as the ‘Marsh girl’ by the local community becomes a suspect. The story takes us back in time to 1952 when her mother struggling with a dirt poor life on a marsh with an abusive husband leaves Kya and her older siblings. One by one, the siblings also leave so that Kya is the only one left with her father. On a bender, he too disappears leaving Kya to fend for herself. She knows only one thing and that is the ways of the marsh. Its wildlife her only friend, she struggles to survive through her childhood and teenage years on her own.
Owens writes beautifully and as an acclaimed nature writer, she takes us on a journey through the marsh. We feel as if we are right in the thick of the environment and that’s the power of it.
“Maybe it was mean country, but not an inch was lean. Layers of life –squiggly sand crabs, mud-waddling crayfish, waterfowl, fish, shrimp, oysters, fatted deer, and plump geese – were piled on the land or in the water.”
Kya grows up yearning to belong, to love and be loved never losing hope that someone from her family will come back to her. Her few interactions with people make her conscious of the whispers about her nickname but she is powerless to know what to do than stay where she is. As she grows up she connects with Tate, a young man who helps her to learn to read and write and who loves the marsh as much as she does and with whom she falls in love. But like many before, he too soon leaves her. And she battles once again with abandonment and rejection.
“…the colors, the light, the species, the life; weaving a masterpiece of knowledge and beauty that filled every corner of her shack. Her world. She grew with them – the trunk of the vine – alone, but holding all the wonders together. But just as her collection grew, so did her loneliness. A pain as large as her heart lived in her chest. Nothing eased it. Not the gulls, not the splendid sunset, not the rarest of shells.”
This is a dual timeline novel where the reader’s attention is switched back and forward between the police investigation of the dead man and Kya’s life. The two stories connect when we find out that Kya knew the man and because of the community’s demands to find a scapegoat, she is targeted.
This novel tugs at the heartstrings with a rollercoaster of emotions. It touches on a number of issues including the environment, prejudice, loss, and discrimination. But it is also about beauty, love, resilience, and strength. I wasn’t disappointed.