In the marshes of North Carolina, Kya has lived alone her whole life: Delia Owen’s debut novel Where the Crawdads Sing is a tale of youth, love and isolation. The book is also an ode to wilderness, as Kya learns to survive on her own since her family left when she was seven, and befriends the swamp around her. The novel is equally a coming of age narrative and a love story: both between the two boys who are intrigued by her life, but mostly her love for her home.
Kya’s character development is tentative, and we see her grow from a naive and innocent girl into a clever and resilient adult. Tate, Kya’s first love, preoccupies much of this book, as we watch their relationship grow from childhood curiosity to teenage desire. They share an intimate and deeply emotional tenderness towards each other, but their relationship is stemmed from their passion for the marshes around them and a will to learn. They grow and care for each other; it is Tate who teaches her to read, and in turn she shows him the workings of the world.
Her next affair some years later with Chase Andrews, the local hero, lacks the same depth but is important in other ways to Kya. While they enjoy each other’s company, he never takes her home to meet his family out of shame, manipulates Kya and lies about his engagement with another girl. After the decline of their relationship, Kya becomes the prime suspect in his murder. Few protest – she is the Wild Marsh Girl, hated by the locals. Interspersed between chapters, we elliptically see how the investigation progresses, switching between Kya’s youthful discoveries and the unfair prejudices of the town’s police.
Love does manage to seep through the pages – it is there, even if not explicitly said
Constant betrayal makes Kya turn against the world. Throughout, she is repeatedly abandoned by those she loves most, and those who should love her. Questions about her family and her heritage haunt her throughout: from her mother who walked out on the family because of her abusive husband, or to the siblings she can longer remember what they look like because they left her when she was so young. In spite of this, love does manage to seep through the pages – it is there, even if not explicitly said. There are people in her life who watch over her and care from a distance, but they are few and far between. It’s in the small actions of Jumpin, the shopkeeper she visits, in the compassion of her first love, Tate, or Jodie, her brother, who’s lessons as a child help her to survive on the marsh.
She was failed both by loved ones but also the state. They provide no support, alienate her from their schools and in the end accuse her of murder. Although her community scorns a life on the marsh, through Kya’s eyes, we see the charm and appeal of such an intimate life. It is then no surprise that she befriends the gulls on the beach or the animals in the forest next to her rundown shack. The marsh becomes the perfect setting for her solitude; the vast emptiness is the same that Kya feels everyday.
It is Owen’s own love for the world that seeps through these pages
The attention and detail to the world of the marsh is what is most captivating about this book. Written by a zoological expert, we feel and see Kya’s world. The focus on the animals and birds, plants and fish, is just overwhelming, so much so, that the prose feels like poetry in instances. Kya compares elements of her life constantly to the natural world, finding comfort in the patterns and repetitions that exist in the marshes and more primitive animals. It is Owen’s own love for the world that seeps through these pages.
In publishing her own books about the marsh, Kya not only gives evidence of her devotion to the natural world as well as her intellect, but it also provides her with the financial stability she has always lacked. It’s refreshing for a female character to find security through her own means rather than relying on a male income. She even solidifies her independence in buying back the land she lives on, so that the threat of looming developers becomes obsolete. With Kya on her marsh, the atmosphere feels both timeless and archaic. Time isn’t present on the marsh, and we see seasons and years run into each other with little to differentiate them. Equally, the notion of primitive survival and living off of the land feels old, older than 60s America, when its set.
It is not surprising then that this book has been snatched up by the film industry and is already in production. Reese Witherspoon got there first, and is starting to become notorious for taking up bestselling novels that have a female perspective. I’m excited to see what is to come, but it will be hard to match such a stellar book.