Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018)
Where the Crawdads Sing is Delia Owens’ first novel, although she and her husband have published three internationally acclaimed non-fiction books about Owens’ experiences as a wildlife scientist in Africa. Where the Crawdads Sing scored a Number 1 spot on the New York Times Bestseller List, winning Owens immediate acclaim as an author of fiction.
The most striking element of Owens’ work is the elegance of the prose. Since the novel is set in the marshes of the coast of North Carolina, the author has the opportunity to write about the wonders of the natural world as if it is a living entity on its own.
The protagonist of the novel, young Kya, is in the woods near the shack in which she lives, when she spots the feather of a blue heron left especially for her on a tree stump. As she is admiring the rare feather, Owens describes a great blue heron in the background:
A great blue heron is the color of gray mist reflecting in blue water. And like mist, she can fade into the backdrop, all of her disappearing except the concentric circles of her lock-and-load eyes. She is a patient, solitary hunter, standing alone as long as it takes to snatch her prey. Or, eyeing her catch, she will stride forward one slow step at a time like a predacious bridesmaid.
Aside from the gorgeous metaphors that Owens uses, the careful choice of alliteration is noteworthy as well. Rarely in fiction do we see such attention to the poetic use of language to paint the canvas on which the characters move. Only with authors who take a great interest in nature, such as Gene Stratton-Porter, who wrote The Girl of the Limberlake Lost, do we see such authenticity in describing the natural world.
A two prong plot divides the novel from 1952 to 1969. The earlier part of the story is a coming of age tale, where Kya, a six year old child is abandoned by her mother and siblings, left to take care of her drunkard father. When even her low-life father disappears, Kya must use her own observations and small resources to raise herself. She makes a little bit of money by digging in the mud for mussels and smoking fish, enabling her to survive on the most meagre provisions.
Kya’s interactions with the outside world are meagre. She is befriended and watched over by Jumpin’, who runs a small store on the local dock and his wife, the loving Mabel. Her only other companion when she is growing up is a blonde haired boy named Tate, who takes an interest in Kya and teaches her how to read.
The story that is set in 1969 is a murder mystery. The body of Chase Andrews, a young local, is discovered in the swamp. Owens describes the scene, underscoring the rot and decay in which the body rests. “Within the marsh, here and there, true swamp crawls into low lying bogs, hidden in clammy forests. Swamp water is still and dark, having swallowed the light in its muddy throat. Even night crawlers are diurnal in this lair. There are sounds, of course, but compared to the marsh, the swamp is quiet because decomposition is cellular work.”
What is it that ties together the story of the scary recluse known in Barley Cove as the “Marsh girl,” and the body found in the swamp? As readers we expect that there must be some connection, and the desire to find out what it is kept me turning pages until sunrise, when I finished Where the Crawdads Sing with great satisfaction.
The beautifully composed Where the Crawdads Sing is one of those novels where the characters and story stay with the reader for days. A haunting tale of pain, preservation, perseverance, and ultimately love, this novel, eloquently told, is definitely a must read.