Way out on the marshes, where the water meets the sky, a young girl grows to womanhood alone. Kya Clark has grown used to people abandoning her: first her mother left, then her beloved brother Jodie, and finally her abusive, drunken father failed to come home. It seems safer to place her trust in nature, which lives by simple rules without the duplicity of mankind. The family’s ramshackle home lies only a few miles from the little town of Barkley Cove on the North Carolina coast, but Kya might as well inhabit another world. Everyone in town knows that the marsh-dwellers are outcasts, law-breakers and thieves. When the body of popular local boy Chase Andrews is found broken and battered beneath the old fire tower just outside town in August 1969, people are quick to seek a scapegoat. And who better than the half-wild Marsh Girl? Delia Owen’s haunting novel was this month’s Book Club pick and my favourite so far (a relief, since I suggested it). It’s a paean to nature in all its rich variety, written in poetic cadences infused with Southern rhythms, and with a heroine who shatters all the stereotypes of the ‘outcast’. It’s the perfect novel for a time when, confined to homes and gardens, we finally have time to savour the natural world around us.
Owens weaves together two storylines, so that we follow Kya as she grows from child to young woman, while simultaneously watching the local sheriff’s investigation into Chase Andrews’s death. The stories mirror one another. One is a tale of glorious expansion, as Kya absorbs herself in the rich and wordless world of shells, birds and water that surrounds her. The other is a tale of narrowing focus, as the prejudiced attention of Barkley Cove closes cruelly in on her. And there’s another example of mirroring in the two young men who shape Kya’s life. There’s Tate Walker, the golden-haired naturalist who is Kya’s first love, who teaches her to read, who gives her words for the things she has always understood but never been able to explain, and who shares her affinity for the wild places of the marsh. And then there’s Chase, seen from afar, the town’s golden boy, who simply belongs so comfortably in the world that Kya has always craved, but knows will never be hers. These two exert a powerful influence on Kya’s imagination, for other human contact is slim – except her friendship with Jumpin’, who runs the gas shack on the way to Barkley Cove, and his wife Mabel.
The joy of the novel is its prose, which flows with the suppleness of water and always feels spot on. Owen is at her very best when describing the natural world that surrounds Kya, and her heroine’s own untrammelled, half-feral beauty (her ‘fragile, lithesome look as though molded wild by the wind‘). She captures the cadences of local speech in her dialogue, in a way that never feels false, and chooses words which anchor her time and place. The town’s hard-working fishermen wear ‘bib overalls’, which I had to look up (dungarees, right?) and the local cuisine is founded on the omnipresent ‘grits’ (grits might still be common in the States, but once again I had to run to Google). In fact, food plays a key role in setting the scene: Kya’s memories of her mother are knitted around the scent of ‘fatback crackling in the iron skillet and whiffs of biscuits browning in the wood oven’ – here, food is safety, security, maternal love. She also cherishes memories of picnics with Tate at which she gets to sample cake and other unusual treats. Against the frugality of Kya’s diet, we see the sheriff and his colleague tucking into a gutsy Southern takeaway that made my mouth water just reading about it: ‘chicken ‘n’ dumplings, butter beans, summer squash casserole, cane syrup, and biscuits.’ Every word seems to be carefully chosen for the way it rolls in the mouth, and the novel is a feast of language.
I was so thoroughly absorbed in the story that I didn’t really care if certain aspects of it were plausible. Can I really believe that a girl who couldn’t read until she was ten would then throw herself into Einstein’s theories of space-time, alongside complex biology textbooks? But why not? Perhaps we only believe in intellectual constraints (i.e. ‘it’s too difficult for me’) if we’re told that they’re there. Part of the book’s thrill, in fact, comes from watching Kya’s thirst for knowledge blossoming into a profound scientific engagement with her wilderness. She’s a compelling character, convincing and resilient, and my heart was with her from the very first page. The murder mystery and trial elements of the plot are important, of course, as you wait to find out Kya’s fate, but I didn’t find them quite as engaging as the simpler scenes in which she is simply alone with the marshes. I sensed that here Owens was most at home (by training, she is a naturalist, with several non-fiction books under her belt). The achingly beautiful descriptions of the marsh reminded me that nature is never still, never quiet. When we’re caught up in the busy everyday life of a city, we forget to stop and look around. Parks become things to walk through; the river is just a backdrop to our daily life. I may not be lucky enough to have a marsh on my doorstep, but Owens’s book is the kind of novel that’ll make me stop, next time I’m out on the riverside or the common, and to think about the delicate web of exuberant life all around.
Beautiful and evocative, this book will linger with you. It’s perfect fare for lockdown reading, as it’ll carry you far away, onto the open channels of the marsh, with the horizon low and distant and the salt wind sharp on your face. Poignant escapism.
P.S. I read on Amazon that this is ‘soon to be a major film’. While the book is obviously cinematic, with its wide vistas and gorgeous scenery, I do hope the director is sympathetic to its feel. It would be incredibly easy to ruin its magic. This requires a certain type of direction – more Terrence Malick than mainstream Hollywood.