Top critical review
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 18 July 2019
This story of a six-year-old child left to fend for herself in a Carolina swamp when her stereotype swamp-trash likker-sluggin' pa finally doesn't come home again (we're not told why - hopefully an alligator ate him), is an exercise in cliches. We are asked to believe that this beautiful (natch), sensitive, artistic blah blah little girl raises herself from barefoot illiteracy to womanhood and published fame as a naturalist, with three self-illustrated books on marshland flora and fauna. She is taught to read and overnight to abandon her swamp patois for highbrow English by, gosh, a boy who falls in love with her, and manages to educate her to university level with some textbooks. Said boy, having achieved this Pygmalion-like transformation, then departs to do his own high-class degree, promising to return to his true love, who hangs around the swamp waiting. But he doesn't return because alas! he realises she is a wild creature, a child of nature who would never fit into civilisation, and so on. So he passes on coming back to claim her and Swamp Girl's heart broken. She has a fling with the baddie of the piece, another walking cliche - handsome, privileged, all the girls want to go to the prom with him - and predictably he breaks her heart by marrying an appropriate girl who wears shoes and pearls. Really at this point I was ready to give up on the novel, but there is a murder involved and I wanted to find out whodunnit. The murder itself is just a device and fails hopelessly. The trial is ludicrous, the murder allegations are based on evidence that no prosecuting counsel, fictional or otherwise, would have even remotely considered sound, and the attempts to build suspense during the jury's deliberations are just plain silly.
If this flimsy and wholly ridiculous plot line were in any way to be redeemed, it might have been through quality of writing because of the interesting environment of the swamp and its wildlife, but even in this the novel fails. The only passable passages are indeed the ones in which Ms Owens describes the swamp life. The dialogue is ridiculous, the love scenes are stitched together out of worn-out cliches, and the suspension of disbelief required of the reader is just asking way too much.
I have no doubt that Delia Owens is an excellent naturalist and ecologist and an asset to her field. But as a novelist, she doesn't cut it. Don't waste your money on this book.