‘Where the Crawdads sing’ is a debut fiction novel that topped the New York Times bestseller list in 2019 for 25 weeks running, written by already internationally bestselling non-fiction author and wildlife scientist Delia Owens. Jesus Christ Delia, leave some talent for the rest of us, eh? Bloody hell.
This absolutely captivating novel follows a lonely young protagonist Kya, who has been abandoned by her family in the swamplands of North Carolina. We join her in 1952 at just 6 years old, when her mother leaves the house carrying a suitcase and doesn’t look back (quite literally). Her siblings follow suit one by one, leaving tiny Kya in the hands of her abusive, alcoholic father, ‘Pa’. One particularly heart-wrenching moment is when baby Kya asks herself: “She knew Pa was the reason they all left; what she wondered was why no one took her with them.”
Eventually coined ‘The Marsh Girl’ by unkind town-folk, Kya isn’t seen for her incredible resourcefulness as she finds herself again further abandoned by ‘Pa’ at 10 years old (ish). She learns how to take care of herself and her beloved birds, waking up at the crack of dawn to collect mussels and smoke fish to sell so that she can buy grits and vegetables. To the reader she’s a wonder but to the rest of the community, she’s seen as an outcast living in the wild. As Detective Jackson himself says, he “mostly ignored crimes committed in the swamp. Why interrupt rats killing rats?”
Still, she experiences unexpected kindness from a number of individuals who help to keep her alive – the wonderful Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel who are endlessly kind and swap money and food on their wharf for Kya’s meagre offerings. Tate, the young boy who teaches her to read and gives her precious friendship and love, and even Sarah at the grocery store who had given Kya extra change with every store visit since she was tiny.
Most importantly, she is unconditionally accepted and kept safe by the swampland itself. She finds friendship in the birds, food in the water, a way to communicate with Tate through precious feathers found, safety in the marsh as she can hide from being hunted and, eventually, the opportunity to make a livelihood through her passion for it. This is truly a love story between Kya and the swamplands of North Carolina as much as it is anything else.
The novel, both in elements of the plot, and also the protagonist’s attitude and connection to nature, reminded me very much of ‘My absolute darling’ by Gabriel Tallent which I also love and reviewed here. It is absolutely stuffed with lush visuals and descriptions of the swampland and the wildlife living among it that you feel like you can taste, smell and hear it all.
So many plot devices that were newly invigorated and given life by Delia’s writing style. Going back to Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Moments in my writing life’ plot suggestions, she hits a few on the head and they are super effective. Most notably:
- You want your readers to immediately root for your character, you kill the parents off in the first few pages. Kya experiences immense loss as a tiny 6 year old, and we want her to succeed from the very moment we’re introduced.
- The ‘burnt tongue’ i.e. adjusting dialogue for speech impediments and accents. Delia’s beautiful use of the Southern accent is on full display in this novel: “Ya said ya’re too old to play ’splorers” and “I got my week’s quota of mussels, cain’t buy no mo’.”
- The ticking clock. By the third chapter, we already have two questionable ticking clocks adding dramatic tension. We are waiting throughout the book to find out whether Kya’s mother will come home, and why she left – and we want to know who killed Chase Andrews, who is found lying below the fire tower. Both of these plot points have to be wrapped up before the end of the book, and there are plenty of red herrings along the way.
The plot is as meandering as the swamp she chugs through in her father’s boat, – it pings us through time and perspectives and brings us to its final conclusion. An ending which asks something of you as a reader – to explore how you feel when you reach the twist, and whether it is ‘right’ for you to feel that way.
Poetic prose, a fantastically three-dimensional protagonist, intimate experiences with nature that only a wildlife expert would know how to write, and an entertaining and often dark storyline. I cried on at least five different occasions reading this book, and I felt changed by it too. ‘Where the Crawdads sing’ truly has it all. I can’t wait for her to write another book.