It seems that millions of people absolutely loved this book, but sadly I wasn’t one of them. Despite the strong start and some of the most exquisite descriptions of nature I’ve read, I finished it out of sense of obligation more than anything else.
Delia Owens’ bestseller came to my attention with the recent release of the film adaptation. Many of the reviews panning the film pointed out that the book owed its success to Owens’ eloquent descriptions of the desolate marshlands of the North Carolina coast, which naturally get lost in the transition to the visual medium. I’ve always loved books with a strong sense of place and atmosphere, so while I had no wish to watch the movie, it definitely got me interested in the original novel.
The book tells the story of its heroine, Kya Clark, in a timeline-jumping order, with the main storyline spanning 1952 to 1970. It doesn’t waste time building tension, with a prologue in which the body of the town’s local golden boy, Chase Andrews, is found in the swamp in 1969. Meanwhile back in 1952, six-year-old Kya is watching her mother walk away from their family shack, suitcase in hand, never to return.
Abandonment is the bitter pill Kya tastes again and again, with the rest of her older siblings drifting away one by one, and her drunken Pa eventually disappearing as well. She’s left to raise herself in the depths of an isolated marsh, getting to know the land like the back of her hand, acquiring cooking and gardening skills to feed herself and catching mussels to sell to Jumpin’, a black man who owns a gasoline station. She avoids contact with the rest of the townsfolk, who regard her as swamp trash and an uneducated freak.
Credit where credit is due, I found these early chapters effortlessly captivating. With her naturalist background, Owens takes the reader into the heart of a richly drawn world, with abundant, vivid and sumptuous descriptions of the marsh. Her writing is at its best when it’s centred on Kya’s fascination with nature, the tides, the birds and insects, the intricate and at times cruel rituals of the wildlife. There’s so much detail, texture and specificity to enjoy, not just when it comes to nature but also in the depiction of the insular small town life in the not-so-distant past. It’s also easy to feel instant sympathy for Kya, who learns self-reliance and finds solace in the embrace of the marshland, but still yearns for simple human connection and even a “shred” of a family.
As Kya matures and discovers boys, the novel moves into a more clichéd and soppy territory, shedding much of its originality in the process. It also lays bare Owens’ weaknesses as a writer: flat, simplistic characterisation and implausibilities. Kya’s romances, first with kind, thoughtful working-class boy Tate, and then with callous but attractive Mr Popularity, Chase Andrews, unfold as predictably as you’d imagine. Tate also teaches Kya, who previously had spent exactly one day at school in her life, to read, which she takes up with a speed that made me raise eyebrows in disbelief. So did a few crucial story twists that felt incredibly cheap and forced.
Throughout all this, the novel is interspersed with chapters about the investigation of what the police come to regard as Chase Andrews’ murder, with Kya steadily emerging as the prime suspect. The past and present converge when Kya is arrested, and the novel turns into a courtroom drama, with the chilling prospect of a death sentence should Kya be found guilty. If I was getting bored with the YA romance taking up the middle chunk of the book, this is where my interest finally nosedived. Away from the evocative scenery of the marsh, the paint-by-numbers court scenes just don’t hold the interest in the same way, despite the life-and-death stakes.
Worse still, this last section of the novel feels completely drained of Kya’s inner life. Instead it plays out like it was written with a film adaptation already in mind, with brisk, dialogue-heavy scenes that are mostly battles between the defence and prosecution, with the main heroine largely listless and checked out. It feels as if the reader’s connection to Kya’s thoughts, feelings and observations, so consistently strong earlier on, was sacrificed for the sake of did-she-or-didn’t-she tension, suddenly turning her into an opaque, distant figure.
I had a similar frustration with the final story twist which, I admit, I didn’t see coming in million years. It casts a different light on the story and ties in very well with some of the points Owens makes about the natural world, but I wished that it was something actually worked into the story, rather than reserved for a last-minute surprise. Admittedly it would have made the writer’s task that much harder and the book might not have been the crowdpleaser it was.
The singular setting and Owens’ mesmerising celebration of nature was still enough for me to not regret time spent with the book, but it certainly didn’t live up to the hype.