Everyone is reading Where the Crawdads Sing. Like over a hundred person waiting list at the library so I decided to buy it kind of everyone. And I’m glad I did. It was a perfect cottage read, even with a couple of flaws that prevent it from being great or an unqualified go-read-it-now.
Set in the lagoon-swamp of the Carolina coast, the novel opens with a dead body (always an exciting hook) and then moves decades back in time to follow Kya, or ‘Marsh Girl,’ an abandoned child who raises herself amid the wilderness. Pulling at all the appeal that comes with person-versus-nature stories, Kya, must finds ways to both maintain her physical life through trading food and scraping up materials, as well as develop some kind of emotional-social life through relationship with animals and the natural sphere, while also courting – as much as she can – connections with people in the neighbouring town. Even while she always – and deeply – fears that everyone will always leave her. The propulsion of the plot is both in rooting for Kya and some kind of resolution to her absolute loneliness, but more in the understanding of her connection to the dead body, Chase Something-Maybe-Andrews(?) and an explanation of the crime.
Where the novel does incredibly well is in the vivid description of setting and place. Kya’s lagoon and her connection to the natural world is at once detailed and lively – the reader readily accepts along with Kya the magic of the land and its tenuous preservation amid efforts to develop it. No surprise, perhaps, as author Delia Owens was first a non-fiction nature and science writer. It also does well in the characterization of Kya, who we come to know intimately – in part because we feel through the third person limited narration, paired with her total isolation, that we are the only ones to truly know her.
*MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD*
So where things get less successful (and I’m not prepared to declare these deal-breaker problems, just more sign posts that this isn’t a perfect novel or one that you should immediately go out and buy, though you probably will because Amazon and Chapters and Everyone are demanding that you do) are in some of the smaller moments of plot, narration and dialogue.
For instance, the final pages reveal Kya’s culpability in Chase’s murder. Until these last pages the novel is narrated from her limited perspective. The ‘reveal’ reads as an untidy and ungraceful way to execute this ending, that with the proximity of reader to narrator we ought to either have been brought in to this climactic moment, or there ought to have been a reasonable narrative means of excluding these scenes from our relationship with Kya. As it is, it just reads as though Owens wanted a big ‘ah ha’ reveal, rather than an intentional narrative moment.
Similarly, the relationship with Tate, while initially incredibly well drawn and textured, ends with something of a Hallmark steadiness, where even their infertility is something glossy and shiny. I get that the rest of the novel isn’t about their relationship, and that they’re meant to be soul mates, but the complete wrapped-with-a-bow conclusion to their fraught and complex relationship felt rushed and sloppy.
Finally there are some scenes where the dialogue is weird and cumbersome and I had a strong reminder that Owens comes to fiction from non-fiction, or at least that was my guess. Those moments are few though, but where they appear it just reads as not-like-any-conversation-any-characters would ever actually have in life.
All these quibbles aside, the novel is a lot of fun to read, and Owens strikes a fine balance between exoticizing the ‘Marsh Girl’ for our comfortable voyeurism, and giving her a complete character. So when your book club inevitably picks this one: enjoy.