Setting is everything in Delia Owens’ debut novel Where The Crawdads Sing. North Carolina’s coastal marsh takes centre stage in this beautiful and heartbreaking story about family, judgment, and one girl’s magical relationship with her homeland.
Born in the mid-20th century, Kya Clark has always been a force of nature. Growing up in poverty in the swampy forests of the southern east coast, her one true love has always been the land. As her brothers and sisters all depart to search for better lives, Kya eventually finds herself alone in her tiny family home, struggling to survive at an age when she is barely able to work or fend for herself. For years she is isolated from her peers and harshly judged by a society she has no desire to be a part of. Nicknamed “The Marsh Girl” by the people of a nearby town, Kya spends her adolescence hiding from those who don’t understand her, only ever opening up to two very different men who want two very different things from her.
When a young, popular man turns up dead in the marsh, the townspeople immediately suspect Kya, using her unusual way of life as evidence of wrongdoing. As she struggles to defend herself and reclaim her home, Kya is put through an ordeal she may never overcome. Part crime story, part love story, and part natural history lesson, Where The Crawdads Sing is a masterpiece of literary storytelling.
Owens, while a first-time novelist, is no stranger to writing. She has co-authored three books about her life as a wildlife scientist in Africa, and has won several major awards for her work. Her knowledge and insight into the many mysteries of nature shine through in Where The Crawdads Sing, which in many ways is written as a love story to a part of the world that many people don’t understand.
Owens’ writing is eloquent and flowy, and fits perfectly with the themes of the novel, which include isolation and judgment and the misperceptions people develop of anything or anyone who might be different. Kya’s universe exists on a very small parcel of land, but Owens writing transforms the marsh into a living, breathing, vibrant ecosystem in which her main character can spend decades and yet never lose interest or her sense of excitement. Kya’s strange habits – talking to pigeons and jetting around alone in her boat – lose their strangeness as the reader comes to love her and understand her past.
Despite her two romantic relationships which feature prominently in the plot of the novel, Kya is never a character defined by her love life. She is independent – although not always desiring to be – and strong, and can fend for herself better than any other person she knows. Nothing in life has come easily to her, and her hard work and openness to the unusual are what have sustained her in a life of loneliness and hardship. The most beautiful part of Where The Crawdads Sing are the passages in which Kya first learns to read, despite only ever having attended school for one day. It is magical to follow along as her world is opened up beyond the confines of her small house and little boat.
Where The Crawdads Sing defies categorization, dipping its toes into various genres including literary fiction, mystery, romance and historical fiction. There really is something for everyone in this book, and I’ll end my review by signing off with nothing but the highest praise.
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