Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Cover of Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

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.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on September 8, 2020, in Book Reviews and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

  1. Sheree @ Keeping Up With The Penguins

    I’ve had this one on my shelf for a while, but haven’t picked it up for much the same reason you put it off: too much hype, couldn’t possibly live up, etc etc… I wanted to leave it long enough to be pleasantly surprised, but that might be a while. I don’t love dual timelines, so that doesn’t bode well 😬

  2. My book club also chose this book and we will be discussing it next week. I have about 100 pages to go but you definitely nailed it with this review. I totally agree that the best elements of this book is Kya in the marsh. Owens descriptions are absolutely beautiful and though I have never been, I can picture it all.

  3. I could also have done without the silly poems. I hate it when a novel incorporates poetry of sub-high-school-lit-magazine quality that is held up as an amazing literary accomplishment.

  4. I have this tbr, and will read it when I am in the mood for this kind of read. I have heard others saying the ending is a little weak.

  5. I wish it hadn’t been so hyped, too, as it was a just about competent plot but excellent nature writing. I enjoyed it, but would have enjoyed it more without the too-high expectations.

  6. I just can’t face this one. I’ve been seeing it everywhere for months!

  7. I’ve just acquired this book and have yet to read it. I hope I like it.

  8. Like you, I went in with high expectations, but it failed on every count. Yes, the connection to nature was well done, but the plot felt obvious and lack-luster. I should have listened to my instincts, not read it, and left it to all those who have enjoyed it so much!

    • It did have weak spots but I wouldn’t say it failed in every regard. You didn’t think the nature element was good?

      • The nature element was the only part I liked – there was a great sense of place. I imagine it will be made into a movie (and it will be lovely to watch). The coming-of-age, romance and suspense elements of the plot were lacking.

  9. One of my favorite books. Very calm and relaxing atmosphere going out to the swamps away from civilization and drawing birds. Really loved the social commentary as well.

  10. I just finished reading it. On first read …it is Kya’s story intermingling with the ‘marshland’ that is the special attraction of the novel.

  11. So atmospheric! I didn’t care for the morally ambiguous ending.

  12. One of my favorite, favorite novels. Heartwrenching, poignant.

  13. My response to this was much the same. Creaky plot, vivid atmosphere.

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