This story follows Kya Clark from the age of six as she grows up alone in the swamplands of North Carolina. Abandoned by her family, she manages to hunt and fish to survive, learning from the wildlife around her. The maternal habits of animals fill her with the painful hope that her mother will return. Solitude ensures that nature teaches her everything about life and love when no other person can. These parallels act as metaphors throughout the novel, showing her how to behave. Fireflies provide lessons in procreation but don’t exactly prepare her for the advances of young boys from the town. Kya sees all aspects of life and death played out in nature and absorbs the knowledge in the absence of any formal education.
As a teenager, Kya crosses paths with shop owners and trades for survival and this is where Owens allows her some much needed tutelage from a wise African American woman. Mabel helps her navigate the trials of womanhood, helping to transform Kya from an illiterate, feral recluse, into a young woman.
As if this story isn’t enough, Owens has also skilfully placed a crime story alongside the narrative. There’s a lot of jumping back and forth on the timeline between 1952 and 1970, this builds tension as you wait for the two narratives to tie together. A body is found at the swamp, and there is a strong possibility that Kya is guilty of murder.
Kya is portrayed with such vivid detail, using her internal monologue and very limited sentimentality in the way she processes interactions. This makes her a strong female heroine but also allows you to entertain the thought that she may be capable of killing a man.
The novel depicts racial and social division in such atmospheric ways, how people lived, what they ate and how they spoke to one another, I was utterly absorbed by the story.
This is Owens’ debut novel after a very successful career as a wildlife scientist and co-author of three internationally bestselling nonfiction books. Originally published in 2018, this book has managed to top the New York Times bestseller charts ever since. Once again, the film rights have been snapped up by Reese Witherspoon so expect a movie at some point in the future.
This book is widely available, but I also heartily recommend audible books for their beautiful narration of the story.
Published by Corsair ISBN 1472154665