Category Archives: Book Reviews
It was hard to escape Where the Crawdads Sing a few years back. It was on multiple best seller charts and nominated for several big literary prizes. Commercial success was further cemented when the novel was selected for Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine Book Club in September 2018.
I tend to avoid books that get so much visibility because they usually turn out to be nowhere near as remarkable as all the marketing suggests. So I wasn’t all that enthused when it was chosen for our next book club read.
But the book proved to be substantially better than I expected. Though I wasn’t completely sold on the plot and thought the ending was weak, I loved the way Delia Owens conveyed the spirit of the North Carolinan marshlands in which the novel is set.
Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light, here grass grows in water, and water flows in the sky. Slow-moving creeks wander, carrying the orb of the sun with them to the sea, and long-legged birds lit with unexpected grace – as though not built to fly – aainst te roar of a thousand snow geese.
I also appreciated the vivid characterisation of Kya Clark, a girl we follow as she grows up alone in the marshes, relying on her wits to survive.
Where the Crawdads Sing is part coming-of-age story and part romance wrapped into a tale about a possible murder. It follows two timelines that slowly come together. One tracks Kya from the point when as a six-year-old, she is left abandoned, first by her mother and then gradually by her siblings. Eventually even her drunken, abusive father disappears, leaving her with little food, no money in a rough and ready shack in the swamplands.
Kya can’t read or write. But she learns how to hide from school truant officers, how to hunt for food and gather mussels to sell to shopkeepers in the nearest town. She spends her days fishing and drawing and painting the wildlife she observes around her and her collection of seashells.
Delia Owens gives Kya an extraordinary ability to observe the natural world, drawing comfort from it and insights that she uses to comprehend the human world. Nature is her nurse, confidant and family.
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.
It’s a solitary life but it’s preferable to the hostility she faces as a black child whenever she ventures into the town. As she grows into adolescence the “Marsh Girl” begins to attract attention from two local boys. Kindly working class boy Tate becomes her first friend, building her confidence with gifts of rare bird feathers and teaching her how to read and write. When he leaves for university, arrogant posh boy and local football star Chase Andrews comes sniffing around.
The second narrative thread of Where the Crawdads Sing begins a few years later with the discovery of Chase’s body. In the intervening years, Kya has become a celebrated author of beautifully illustrated reference books on shells and seabirds. The royalties have enabled her to improve the shack with running water and furnishings. But the suspicions of the community about this feral child have never disappeared so the murder investigation invariably draws Kya into its net.
The crime element didn’t work too well for me. It does act as a counterpoint to the romance, helping pull the novel back from the brink of sentimentality. But for me, the story of a child abandoned by family and society who finds solace and strength in nature, was strong enough to stand on its own, particularly when it’s delivered alongside lush descriptions of nature.
The morning burned so August-hot, the marsh’s moist breath hung the oaks and pines with fog.
Delia Owens is at her most effective when she’s looking at nature through Kya’s eyes, sitting with her on the shoreline watching the shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s affinity with the gulls who circle and swoop around the creek and her fascination with shells and feathers are evoked so vividly that the finer details of the plot became almost irrelevant.
Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens: EndNotes
About the Author: Delia Owens was born in Georgia, USA. Though she loved writing, she decided to make science her career.
She received a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology from the University of Georgia and a Ph.D. in Animal Behaviour from the University of California.
She went on to study hyenas, lions and elephants in Botswana and undertake conservation work with her husband in Zambia.
Where The Crawdads Sing is her debut novel though she had previously co-authored three internationally bestselling nonfiction books about her life as a wildlife scientist.
About the book: Where The Crawdads Sing was published in 2018. By October 2019 it had sold four million copies. It topped The New York Times Fiction Best Sellers of 2019 and The New York Times Fiction Best Sellers of 2020 for a combined 32 non-consecutive weeks.
The title originated with Delia Owens’ mother who encouraged her young daughter to explore deep into the oak forests near their home. “Go way out yonder where the crawdads sing,” she would tell her daughter.
It’s taken me almost three months to get through The Small House at Allington, book number five in the Chronicles of Barsetshire.
It was a lengthy read – my edition totalled 695 pages. But reading all the previous books in the series had got me accustomed to Anthony Trollope’s verbosity. Dr Thorne (book number 3) was more than 500 pages and Framley Parsonage (number 4 in the series) had 573.
I came to love those doorsteppers for their wit and satirical commentary about the church, politics and the aristocracy. They also had some utterly memorable characters like Mrs Proudie, the Bishop’s wife; Septimus Harding, the meek, elderly warden of almshouses and Obadiah Slope, a brash and unctuous social climber.
Sadly, The Small House at Allington, had few of those elements. Instead of intrigues in the bishopric palaces and grand country estates, we get inter-woven tales of thwarted romances, unrequited love and marriage in all its guises.
Most of the plot revolves around the two Dale sisters who live with their widowed mother at the Small House. It’s a grace and favour house owned by Squire Dale, brother in law to Mrs Dale.
The squire’s cherished wish is that Bell will marry his nephew and heir Bernard and inherit the whole estate. But he is thwarted in his aim because Bell rejects the marriage proposal and marries the local doctor instead.
Lily falls deeply in love with Bernard’s friend, the handsome Adolphus Crosbie, not realising that he’s a self-seeking social climber. Just weeks after his engagement, Crosbie decides marriage with an Earl’s daughter is a more -advantageous match. He ditches Lily and gets hitched to the Lady, believing that association with the de Courcy family will help him rise in the world.
He gets his come upance when the de Courcy family’s financial status is revealed to be little more than smoke and mirrors. And his marriage bed turns distinctly chilly when his Lady wife turns out to be a bore, always whining that she has no social life and no carriage. Adolphus begins to wish he’d married Lily after all.
There are other stories in the background, most of which relate to portrayals of marriage. Trollope seems to be something of a cynic when it comes to affairs of the heart. Although Bell does marry for love, the majority of the featured couples marry for reasons of expediency. Making a “good match” is shown as especially important in the upper echelons of society, helping to advance the status of the dynasty or protecting its interests. But the result is a sterile life where the two people involved have little to say to each other and can barely tolerate being in the same room.
That theme, and some scenes set in a London boarding house, are about the most interesting aspects of The Small House at Allington. The plot is OK, but Trollope takes an age over it and could easily have wrapped up the whole novel with considerably fewer pages. I could have forgiven him his bagginess if only he’d given us some sparkling characters. But I found most of them to be lacking dynamism.
Lily is meant to be the heroine. Early on in the novel, Trollope introduces her thus:
Lilian Dale, dear Lily Dale – for my reader must know that she is to be very dear, and that my story will be nothing to him if he do not love Lily Dale…
When Lily’s heart is broken she doesn’t succumb to weeping and wailing. Nor does she collapse under the strain of her abandonment (though she does succumb to scarlet fever). She just carries on her life; playing matchmaker on behalf of her sister, teasing the gardener and generally acting in a kindly way to all.
Her refusal to say anything bad about the man who jilted her, shows admirable decency. We can also admire the way she steadfastly refuses to marry long time friend Johnny Eames. He was once a hobbledehoy but is now a fine, upstanding young man with a good future ahead of him. Lily’s mother thinks he’s the perfect match for her daughter. Her uncle and sister are in agreement. But Lily is adamant: her heart still belongs to Crosbie.
I imagine contemporary readers wanted Trollope to give her a happy ending, but they don’t get it. Lily in effect resigns herself to widowhood.
There is only so much fortitude and forbearance I can take. And Lily wore me out on that score. The more she insisted Crosbie would always be the love of her life, the more she closed her mind to other people’s opinions he’d acted a cad, the more frustrated I became. Even Trollope ended up less than enamoured with his heroine. In his autobiography he commented:
In the love with which she has been greeted, I have hardly joined with much enthusiasm, feeling that she is somewhat of a female prig.
Former British Prime Minister John Major who was a fan of Trollope’s work, declared The Small House at Allington to be his favourite book of all time. It certainly isn’t mine. In fact its the least interesting of all the Barset novels I’ve read. I’m just hoping that the final book – Last Chronicle of Barset – marks a return to his previous form.
When the poet Lemn Sissay was 14 years old, he carved the initials NG into his hand. The letters represented what he believed to be his name: Norman Greenwood. Years later he discovered that was a lie and his real identity had been deliberately buried for most of his life.
An even more painful discovery followed. He’d always felt unwanted by his natural mother, given to understand by social workers and foster parents that she’d put him up for adoption. Only when he left the care system did the full extent of the deception come to light. Within his case files was a letter from his mother, written in 1968 when he was one year old, pleading for social workers to return her son.
Life Built From Lies
“They lied to me. Someone did love me. My mother”, Sissay writes in his deeply affecting memoir My Name Is Why.
The book recounts a 34-year campaign to retrieve his entire case file from Wigan council, the Yorkshire authority into whose care he was placed upon his birth in 1967. He was finally granted access to the file in 2015.
The documents revealed his true name, that his mother was Ethiopian and had put her son in the care of social workers when she was forced to return home to care for her dying father. But she had refused to sign any adoption papers.
In Sissay’s eyes, the care system completely failed him. It had stolen him, imprisoned him, placed him with inappropriate foster parents, moved him from one institution to another and spat him out at the end without family, name or history. It left him feeling unloved, lacking in self worth, and questioning whether he was to blame for everything that had gone wrong in his life.
Questions Of Care
His memoir is an attempt to answer how this could have happened. How a state could steal a child and keep it secret. But Lemn Sissay is also asking why. A significantly appropriate question because in Amharic, the language of his mother’s people, the surname Sissay means why.
My Name Is Why places Sissay’s recollections – in chronological order – of his experiences in the care system, alongside grainy extracts from social workers’ reports and letters. The juxtaposition reveals the gaps between the official interpretation of “Norman’s” behaviour and his own account, with inconsistencies repeatedly challenged and rebutted by Sissay.
Placed as a black child in a white, middle-class deeply religious family, Sissay was repeatedly told by his foster parents they were the only people willing to take in a “coloured” baby.
Tensions within the home were evident from a young age but became more prevalent as Sissay grew older, particularly after his foster parents had their own children. Sissay felt increasingly estranged from the family, accused of everything from stealing biscuits, to losing his temper and threatening to kill his brother. An accusation that Sissay rejects utterly.
Home was now hell. I couldn’t do anything right. The better I did, the worse I was treated. I was deceitful. I was tricking everyone into thinking I was a good kid. For the life of me I didn’t understand.
Life Without Love
When he reached the age of 12, his foster parents said they’d had enough. The boy would have to go. The day Sissay left for a children’s home he tried to hug his foster mum. But she and her husband were already disappearing inside the house.
It was the last time he saw or heard from them. No birthday cards. No Christmas presents. None of his clothes or books from his first home were ever sent to him. Sissay spent the next five years in a succession of homes, his mental health suffering under the weight of bullying, feelings of utter rejection and alienation because of his colour. The physical cruelty and strip searches experienced in his final institutional “home” caused Sissay nightmares until he reached his forties.
Every page of this book speaks of a social care system that was meant to help and support vulnerable children, proving singularly inadequate to the task. Though the official records do show a few sparks of sensitivity, particularly from his main social worker, they are few and far between. In the main what we find is his every stage in life recorded “click, clack, clack” in cold officialise.
“Staff meeting with appropriate social workers regarding control,” reads a typical report. Another reads:
The child has an extrovert personality and is attention-seeking. He is bright academically but unable to sustain long periods of concentration and is therefore disruptive in classroom situations.
No questions are ever posed in this report about why the child sought attention in school and was there any connection with the lack of attention he felt he received at home. School officials and social workers just view him as a problem child who has to be dealt with, rather than understood.
Blistering Indictment Of Care System
My Name Is Why is a blistering, unputdownable memoir that touches on the nature of social care, identity and family and how it feels to grow up believing no-one loves you. I was engrossed from the first page until the last, alternately feeling deeply sad and incredibly angry at the inhumane treatment of this child. The UK social care system does undertake some fantastic work, often in the most trying of circumstances, but when it gets it wrong – as it so evidently did in this case – the scars last a lifetime.
It’s astonishing to contemplate the extent of Sissay’s resilience, the strength that enabled him to come through this ordeal without irrevocable damage. No-one, least of all Sissay himself, could have imagined this troubled, disruptive child would become a renowned poet, a university chancellor and a Booker prize judge. But I couldn’t help reflect as I got to the end of the book about all the other youngsters subjected to the same institutional care system but who never made it.
My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay: EndNotes
About the book: My Name is Why was published by Canongate in 2019
About the author: Lemn Sissay released his first book of poetry in 1988 at the age of 21. Since the age of 24 he has been a full-time writer, performing internationally.
He became the official poet of the 2012 London Olympics, has been chancellor of the University of Manchester since 2015. He was awarded the 2019 PEN Pinter Prize, a prize awarded to writers who take an “unflinching, unswerving” view of the world.