Kya Clark lives with her family in a shack in the North Carolina marshes until her siblings and parents leave one by one and she is left at the age of 7 to raise herself. Abandoned to this solitary life with just herons and gulls for company she learns to cook, grow vegetables and eek out a living, but she has few friends and shuns society. Some years later a handsome young man is murdered and The Marsh Girl is the obvious suspect. Unfolding slowly in dual timelines, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is an immersive and captivating summer read.
At some level she understands why first her mother, then her siblings leave: her alcoholic, abusive father. But what she can’t understand is why her mother never comes back to get her (animals never abandon their young). This deep loneliness and pain shapes her life, while at the same time the marsh and the wildlife become not just her friends and family but also her sustaining purpose.
Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn’t know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land who caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.
After her one and only day at school where she is mocked by the other children, she retreats to her watery home, scratching a living by exchanging mussels for boat fuel. Her only friends are the kindly general store owner Jumpin’; his wife who gives her hand-me-downs and helps her through puberty; a shy boy Tate who teaches her to read. From such a desolate start she becomes one of the most appealing literary characters I can remember: resilient, passionate, gentle, with an incredible yearning to be connected with love and life yet a stronger fear of being hurt. What she knows of life is informed by her observations of nature; what she knows of love is informed from bullfrogs and fireflies. When something terrible happens and the town turns against her, the themes of small-town prejudice and misogyny come to the fore and she retreats into silence, allowing her fate to unfold.
So this is a mishmash of lots of genres: a coming of age story, a romance, a courtroom drama, a murder mystery. For me it was the unusual setting in the marshes that really made it, and the beauty of much of the writing.
Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky. Slow-moving creeks wander, carrying the orb of the sun with them to the sea, and long-legged birds lift with unexpected grace—as though not built to fly—against the roar of a thousand snow geese. Then 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.
A few niggles apart – the dodgy poetry Kya is prone to quote (although that is explained eventually), somewhat far-fetched plot, slightly too long courtroom scenes – this is an intense, heart-in-mouth read that reminds you of what’s important in life: friendship, love and the healing power of the natural world.
“Let’s face it, a lot of times love doesn’t work out. Yet even when it fails, it connects you to others and, in the end, that is all you have, the connections.”
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is published by Corsair, 384 pages.