I suspect that I’ll be a tad unpopular after this, and so I’ll get straight to the point. I liked this novel – I didn’t love it. Hear me out…
I do see all the things that people have raved about, and it is clear that this is a much-loved novel for lot of readers. Kya is a fascinating figure, and there’s no doubt that Delia Owens has thought through her plot thoroughly. The setting, the coastal marshland of North Carolina, is beautifully recreated in her prose – in fact, it was my favourite element: the sense of the tides, the poverty-stricken life eked out on the margins of the state. And it has a map – I do love a story with a map.
The characterisation is also strong. I actually feel Owens is at her best when she quickly draws up minor characters in a swift line – as she does with Robert Owens, Kya’s editor, in the latter stages of the book, or Mabel, the one sympathetic female figure in Kya’s life. The way Owens writes the relationships between Kya and her family, the people who abandon her one by one, is also really well done.
‘He pulled out a chair and sat, so she did the same. In silence they filled their plates and picked stringy meat from the stingy backbones. He lifted a vertebra and sucked out the marrow, fatty juice glistening on his whiskered cheeks. Gnawed on those bones till they were slick as silk ribbons.
“This here’s better’n a cold collard sandwich,” he said.
“I wish the cornbread’d come out. Maybe shoulda put more soda in, less eggs.” Kya couldn’t believe she was talking on so, but couldn’t stop herself.’
All that makes for an excellent novel. The focus on poverty and on prejudice in post-war America, Kya’s lonely childhood spent watching the flora and fauna on the marshes, followed by her subsequent development into an outstanding naturalist – all this would have been a brilliantly observed novel all on its own. However, we know from the beginning that there is a dead man to be dealt with, a possible murder victim, and this I felt added an unnecessary extra layer – it almost feels as though there are two different books here. Yes, we learn about Kya through the eyes of others, and there’s much made of the impact prejudices of the small-town can have on a person’s life, but the crime-scene strand detracted from what could have been a truly fascinating novel. What Owens does with this element could have been shown in a less sensationalised way. But, as I say, I know I’m in the minority here. It is a really good read – I think I was just looking for something else.