• The Good: Coming-of-age and romance plot lines
  • The Bad: The plausibility of many scenarios are stretched; the denouement falls short
  • The Literary: High appreciation of poetry and biology throughout

First her mother leaves, then each of her siblings one after the other, until little Kya Clark survives nearly on her own in a house without running water or electricity on the North Carolina coast in 1952. Her alcoholic father remains for a few more years, but he is absent enough that she learns to feed and clothe herself. She goes for school at age seven for the first time, but after the first day she decides to never go back. Kya grows up all on her own, and the judgmental people of the small town of Barkley Cove refer to her only as the “Marsh Girl”. But when the former star quarterback Chase Andrews is found dead in 1969, Kya’s freedom is threatened when she is suspected of murder.

I love the sense of isolation in this novel. Kya does have help in a brother and father before they leave, in a local  couple that own the shop where she buys gas for her boat, and in a studious young boy named Tate who lives across the marsh and teaches her to read. But Kya is on her own so much, abandoned again and again, until the marsh becomes her true love. She finds friends in the gulls and learns the ways of the waters. She collects feathers and shells; catalogs grasses and mushrooms. The novel itself is an ode to the natural world.

As Kya grows into a young woman and we hear her innermost thoughts, she becomes involved with Tate and Chase in succession. But in spite of her deep desire to be loved and touched and a part of a family, Kya’s actions are shaped by her childhood, and happiness seems nearly impossible.

I could have spent the entire novel reading about Kya’s life in the marsh, sans the mystery plot line. That’s not to say the trial isn’t a page-turner, but that section of the book seems to take on a different feel. As a reader, I am so close to Kya during her youth that I feel like I know her. But during the trial, I no longer see everything that Kya does or thinks, so that the final reveal in the denouement is jarring.  To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I like the ending.

Much about this book is delicate. The prose is gently lyrical. The setting is atmospheric. The pacing is highly effective, enhanced by the alternate timelines that converge at the murder trial. But some assumptions stretch the imagination. I find it highly unlikely a child could survive on her own from such a young age or that same girl who attended only one day of school would grow up to be a published author of naturalist science books, but I suppose that it doesn’t bother me all that much.

Highly recommended for fans of quietly feminist fiction!

“Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn’t know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land who caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.”