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.