Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
Publication date: August 14, 2018
On Monday I mentioned having a book hangover and Delia Owens’s debut, Where the Crawdads Sing, is the culprit. What is worse is that I tried to read my way out of it and got mired in overwrought, pretentious prose that pushed all of Crawdads beauty out of my head and filled it with a tarry gunk that immobilized my brain. A foolish mistake that I’m paying for now. Still, I’ll soldier on, because this is one gorgeous, atmospheric novel and Owens’s accomplishment deserves attention and praise. i.e. Read this book. Drop everything else and read this book.
The novel begins in 1969 with the discovery of man’s body in a swamp near the small town of Barkley Cove, North Carolina. From there it quickly moves back to the early 1950s where Kya, a 6-year-old girl watches her mother leave the family’s shack and disappear from her life. Within months all four of her older siblings have followed, including 13-year-old Jodie, her favorite. None can withstand their father’s beatings and drunken rages any longer. And so, at an age when most don’t even know what a stove is, Kya teaches herself to cook to feed her father and herself. When she’s ten he finally takes off leaving her alone in the marshy wilds to fend for herself. Where the Crawdads Sing is the story of a little girl who grows to be a young woman with no schooling and no support system except an older boy who teaches her to read and helps her fish and a black man who buys what she catches and whose wife gives her clothes. None of the white people in Barkley Cove want anything to do with her. They call her Marsh Girl. It’s only when the dead man arrives that they turn their eyes towards her.
Where the Crawdads Sing may open with a mystery, but it is the least interesting part of the novel. Thankfully, Owens spoons it gently into Kya’s story, never letting it overwhelm what is important—the journey of one little girl living abandoned in complete isolation. A girl who is as elusive and as misleading as the marshes themselves. On the surface, Kya appears drab, murky, and suspicious but a closer look reveals a world of color and surprise. A childhood of such deprivation often leads downward or out, but Owens gives Kya another path—inward. She stays where she’s planted, believing it to be the most beautiful place on earth, even though others think of it as trash and her along with it.
Novels that brim with grand settings and outsized characters and plots are often the ones that get noticed, but in Where the Crawdads Sing, Owens takes a swamp and a girl who never leaves it and creates a luminous world that seals in the reader’s attention. She makes nature the binding ingredient—what informs Kya’s understanding of the larger world.
She knew the years of isolation had altered her behavior until she was different from others…Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would.
But while it provides her safety, Owens doesn’t downplay what a lifetime without normal social interaction does to a person. Kya is a lonely young woman who has given up all hope for a life with people.
“For years I longed to be with people. I really believed that someone would stay with me, that I would actually have friends and a family. Be part of a group. But no one stayed.”
Yes, there is a mystery in Where the Crawdads Sing, but honestly, it was my least favorite part of the whole. What I loved was how gracefully Owens rendered this place and this girl on the page, with words that said so much with so little. Her gift for understated prose makes for evocative, sublime reading. Kya’s feelings when she reads for the first time perfectly echo my feelings about this book.
“I wadn’t aware that words could hold so much. I didn’t know a sentence could be so full.”
Two other books with a very similar feeling readers might enjoy:
Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
Miss Jane by Brad Watson