This book has been a phenomenal success since its publication in 2018 and has spent most of that time on various best-seller lists. A film is now in production starring Daisy Edgar-Jones (who played Marianne, to great acclaim, in the television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People) and I am reliably informed by a young person that Taylor Swift has written a song for it! I approached it with some trepidation – I don’t normally go for best-sellers and I feared this might be over-hyped and overly sentimental. I could not have been more wrong and my book club decided this might be one of the best books we had ever read.
The novel covers events in the period 1952 to 1970 and the central character is Kya (short for Catherine) Clark, known to the local rural community of Barkley Cove as “the swamp girl”. The North Carolina setting of the novel is crucial because Kya becomes an integral part of it. And the setting is brilliantly and powerfully evoked by the author.
The novel is told on two timelines. It opens in 1969 with the discovery of a body in an old tower beside the swamp. The victim is Chase Andrews, a local man, the sporting pride of Barkley Cove, suave, confident and outgoing, he is married but has a reputation as something of a playboy. The local police begin their investigation. The novel then reverts to 1952 where six year-old Kya, the fifth and youngest child of a ‘swamp’ family (one which lives in a rundown house beside the swamp, where their income is precarious and their reputation as outsiders separates them from the mainstream Barkley Cove community) watches her fragile mother walking down the dirt track away from their home, leaving the family for good. Kya’s father is a feckless, violent drunk and Kya’s older siblings gradually leave the home too, unable to bear his aggressive dominance. This leaves Kya on her own with her father. At times they are able to live relatively agreeably together – he sometimes gives her money from his war pension (the family’s only income) and she is able to purchase supplies from the town – but mostly, he disappears, sometimes for days at a time, and Kya is forced to learn to fend for herself. Eventually he disappears altogether. Kya manages to evade the local authorities who try and get her to attend school; they give up eventually too. Kya grows up alone developing an intimate knowledge of the natural world of the swamp, living in harmony with it.
Kya avoids everyone in the town, she has learned to stay under the radar of both the authorities and the two gossips, to whom she is a mystery, to be treated with suspicion and disdain, but she makes three friends: Jumpin’, and his wife Mabel, the proprietor of the swamp-side general store where she must go to replenish her basic supplies, and childhood playmate Tate Walker. When the young child Kya starts to visit his store alone, Jumpin’ quickly realises that she is living alone and he and his wife support and protect her discreetly as best they can; as “coloreds” they are themselves marginalised. Tate Walker was friends with Kya from a very young age when they played together, and is well aware of her father’s violent tendencies. His mother died, a loss which binds them, and he lives alone with his father. When Kya’s father vanishes they renew their acquaintance and their relationship deepens. They eventually become “lovers” of a kind, though avoid intercourse. Tate receives the education Kya is denied and is ambitious to go to college and study natural science. He promises that he will visit Kya during the vacations, but on his first visit home he spots Kya from a distance on the beach near her hut and realises that she is almost a wild creature (that is indeed part of what he loves about her) and that she will never be able to fit into the new academic world he now inhabits. Tate leaves Kya without saying goodbye or explaining.
In her deep grief at being abandoned once again Kya falls into a relationship with Chase Andrews. He seduces her and the two begin a secret affair. Chase tells Kya that he will marry her, though he never introduces her to his family. On a visit to Barkley Cove Kya sees an announcement in the local newspaper that Chase is engaged to be married.
Kya’s progress, from small child learning to live by her wits to beautiful young woman living alone on the swamp, fending for herself, is told alongside the story of the police investigation into Chase Andrews’s murder. Inevitably, the twin stories collide when Kya is accused by Chase’s mother and charged with the murder. The account of the trial is told in gripping detail in a way that is reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird. No spoilers here, however, as it will have you on the edge of your seat!
I listened to this on audio and it was read brilliantly by Cassandra Campbell, the same actress who read Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle so powerfully. If you’ve read the hype about this book then believe it! I cried several times throughout – there are so many big moments in it. The plotting is extremely clever. The characters are all strong, fully thought through and well-rounded. But what makes this book so brilliant, and what for me makes it great, is that it is just a cracking good story!