Barkley Cove is a small town on North Carolina’s marshy forested coast. It’s the county seat; not much else around it – a scattering of families in shacks out in the marsh, living off what the sea and marsh offer.
Kya Clark is six years old when her mother leaves one day, carrying an old suitcase, heading toward town. By evening she hasn’t come back. Nor the next evening. Nor ever.
Over the next few weeks, Kya’s three oldest siblings, no longer protected from Pa’s drunken rages, each drift away from home, leaving only her thirteen-year-old brother Jodie and herself. One evening, he speaks through a fist-marked face, “I have to go, Kya. Can’t live here no longer.” She has thought about that too, but has nowhere to go, and no bus money.
Jodie warned her how to stay out of trouble: run from the house if you see anyone coming, hide deep in the marsh. Then he says goodbye.
Pa returns after four days absence; starts to burn his wife’s paintings. Kya screams at him to stop; he threatens her, but she stands her ground. He turns and leaves. She stays out of his way. She cooks greens and grits, gathers mussels and other shellfish. She and Pa reach a truce; he even takes her fishing sometimes. But he returns home less and less often. She learns how to run his old motor boat, trading bags of the mussels she digs for gasoline and grits.
Kya evaded the county truant officer who came to her shack, but once met her by chance at the town grocery. Hearing about the daily free school lunch, she consents to try school. When the town girls jeer at her bare feet and dirty ragged clothes, she never goes back. But while fishing the the waterways of the marsh, she occasionally encounters a former friend of her brother Jodie, named Tate. She and Tate find they share interest in the marsh creatures.
Tate offers to teach her to read, and slowly over the next months this opens a whole new world to her. He brings her old school books, and she soaks up math, biology, poetry. She finds she shares her mother’s talent for painting, and is able to produce the creatures she sees in the marsh and to describe their characteristic behavior. Kya, rejected by her family and by most of the people in Barkley Cove, finds acceptance by Tate. They have developed a relationship by the time he finishes high school and leaves for college.
The relationship soon withers as Tate finds the demands of his college courses make travel back to Barkley Cove on holidays almost impossible. Kya interprets this as rejection by the one she trusted, and vows to depend only on herself hereafter. She is nineteen years old. And alone.
The reader will notice that each chapter in the book is labeled with a year, and that the years jump back and forth, covering Kya’s life and the investigation of the death of Barkley Cove’s star athlete, Chase Andrews, whose body is discovered at the base of the old Forest Service fire tower. He had obviously fallen from the the 60-foot-high platform – there’s blood on a cross-bar where his head hit on the way down. But no tire tracks or footprints nearby; no fingerprints but his own.
According to the county coroner, time of death was between midnight and 2 am. The town is in uproar, the sheriff and deputies have little to go on. Public opinion has always been suspicious of Kya, the strange “swamp-girl”, now in her early twenties, and she has been seen in Chase’s company sometimes. So had several girls in town, but people knew the others. Chase had recently married one of them, in fact, but suspicion often assumes the worst of the strange outsider.
The two sets of chapters gradually converge on the year 1970, the year of the trial for the accused murderer of Chase Andrews. Kya is involved, and finds that she is not alone after all.
The book’s title is an old southern USA expression signifying the outermost part of a swampy wilderness.
Three of this reviewer’s adult family each read the book in record time, and all cautioned
me not to skip ahead to the last 25 pages. I followed their advice, and pass it on to the readers of this review. Author Delia Owens is an excellent story teller, with a talent for the unexpected, and I look forward to seeing her next novel.