Book of the month: 'Where the Crawdads Sing' by Delia Owens*
I haven't done a book of the month in a long time, but Where the Crawdads Sing was such a beyond beautiful book I had to bring it back. This book is like nothing I've read in a long time, and more poignantly, like no recent publication I've come across. I feel like it's reminiscent of American literature from the 60s-80s and it was honestly the kind of soothing read I needed at such an intense time.
There are going to be spoilers in this blog post, so I'll put a big warning for the part containing the spoilers.
'Where the Crawdads Sing' is set in the 50s and 60s in rural North Carolina marshland. There are two story lines and two timelines running through it. One starts in 1969 where detectives are investigating the death of a man in the marshland. The second story line is the main one and starts in 1951, following the story of Kya Clark, a girl living out on the marsh. Kya is one of several children living with their parents, but after her mother leaves the family because the father is abusive, all of Kya's siblings gradually peel off from the family one by one for the same reason.
Kya is now alone with her father who is more interested in what's in his drinking bottle than anything about her. She misses her mother and brother Jodie the most, and spends every day waiting for them to come home. She attends school for one day, but after being mocked for her lack of education, she hides out in the swamp until the social workers stop trying to find her and bring her to school. However, Kya's determined to make her ma and Jodie proud; she wants to show them what she's made of herself when they return. She also needs to learn to survive. With her dad often absent, Kya needs to work out how to cook and more importantly support herself financially.
The language in this is one of the most beautiful things I've read, without the writing being pretentious. The author explains everything in a very sensory way, so you can almost imagine how the marsh felt and looked at different times of the day or year. However, Owens doesn't wrap this up in language that's hard to navigate. The book is very descriptive, but it wasn't some kind of Hardy-esque 'pass me the dictionary' kind of description, and I think it makes the book even more powerful that she managed to make such complex vivid scenes without making it difficult.
I loved the dual storylines, and thought at the start I'd be totally hooked on the murder mystery side of it, and a little bored by this 'coming of age' story on the other side. But the short chapters about the murder were the least interesting for me. I was totally absorbed by Kya, and even though the reader follows her from when she's a girl to her death in quite a short book, I really felt as though I knew her. Her progress through her teenage years wasn't rushed, and didn't feel unrealistic.
I think one of the reasons why this works so well as a debut novel is that Owens' non-fiction nature writing she has published previously weaves in and out of the book. I felt like I was learning things just as Kya was through the collections of feathers and shells she gathered. Kya's learning comes alongside her development into being an adult, with her falling in love with Tate. This was one of the most moving love stories I've read in a long time. Tate supports her in any way he can: teaching her academically, as well as as teaching her more practically about the wildlife around her, and perhaps more importantly, teaching her how to love respectively.
The contrast between his love and Chase Andrews' in the book is not always black and white, but it's very distinct. Both betray her: Tate by not coming back for her, but Chase by trying to rape her, and taking away her autonomy. Tate leaves her alone in the marsh, but Chase takes away the security the marsh has given her for her whole life.
I really think this was a book all about love, and not just the sexual love she had for Chase or Tate. There's her love for the wildlife, her childlike love in the blind trust she has in her ma's return, there's the paternal love Jumpin' and Mabel show her, the filial love she feels for Jodie, and the love of the community for a woman on trial who they've only seen from afar.
I know this post has ended up to be a really long one, but I just want to talk about the moment that really moved me, and that was Jumpin' proudly displaying the book Kya wrote (am I welling up thinking about that again?!). It was such a profound moment, and really well written. Jumpin' had looked out for Kya more than almost everybody else when he really didn't have to help her at all, and it just felt like everything had come full circle with their relationship. Emotions were really well written in the book, and it's in part because they were shown more through actions than narrative.
I feel like there's so much more I can say - how sad it was that she never saw her ma again, and why. How perfect an ending it was that Tate found out the strong wild woman he loved committed the crime no one thought she was able to commit, to take control back over her own life. All the stories of support that came out in the courtroom. Her innocence and loss of it as time went on. It was such a complex novel that I'm sure I'll come back to read in the future and pick up on a whole bunch of nuances I missed this time round. It also really feels like something that will be on English lit courses in years to come, and I hope they make an epic film out of it.
I obviously loved this book and would really recommend it. The scenery reminded me of scenes out of The Notebook, and the book as a whole was a little like The Colour Purple or To Kill a Mockingbird.
*Book gifted to discuss on Instagram, but not to write this post.