Yes, Where The Crawdads Sing is worth all the fuss, writes Jennifer Platt
This is an emotional read from Delia Owens who knows how to pull the heartstrings without being sentimental. But what sells the book are her lush descriptions of the marshland that are pure magic
Published in the Sunday Times (03/03/2019)
Where the Crawdads Sing ****
Delia Owens, Little Brown, R295
Being the book of the moment means there is a high level of expectation. The hype creates a swirl of mixed feelings: praise from those who love the book, naysayers who don't see what all the fuss is about, and those who are disappointed that it did not meet their lofty expectations.
But Where the Crawdads* Sing does deserve its fuss. From the first chapter, the reader tumbles into a story of abject loneliness, as well as into a riveting crime thriller.
The main character, Kya Clark, is a mix of Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird and Lisbeth Salander in the Stieg Larsson novels. She seems to be well on the path to becoming another beloved female persona and like those two, she is heading for celluloid history as well. Reese Witherspoon's production company signed up the film rights after her book club picked it up in September last year.
This is an emotional read from Delia Owens who knows how to pull the heartstrings without being sentimental. But what sells the book are her lush descriptions of the marshland that are pure magic. You can feel the connection Owens has to nature. This is her debut novel but not her first book. She is the co-author of three bestselling nonfiction titles about her life as a wildlife scientist, including Cry of the Kalahari.
We first meet Kya in 1952 as a six-year-old who watches her mother walk away from their decrepit shack in the marshlands in North Carolina. Day after day, she waits for her mother to come back, but instead, she is abandoned by her four older siblings one by one, until she is the only one left with her father - drunk, abusive and neglectful.
Kya quickly learns that to survive she has to stay out of his way. Every time he goes for days on end, she hopes that at least he comes back to leave her with a few dollars on the kitchen table to buy food, soap and matches.
However, when she is 10, her father abandons her as well. "'I guess he's gone for good'. She bit her lips until her mouth turned white. It wasn't like the pain when Ma left - in fact, she struggled to mourn him at all. But being completely alone was a feeling so vast it echoed."
Isolated in a shack that has no electricity or water, Kya has two matches left to light her woodstove and paraffin lamps, and she has run out of food. "I don't know how to do life without grits."
The marsh becomes her family, fortitude and means. She digs for mussels and sells them to Jumpin' at the Gas & Bait store on a wobbly wharf a few kilometres upriver from her shack. Jumpin' and his wife Mabel - who live in Coloured Town (this is the '60s in the American South) - are the only people she talks to. They are the only people who help her. The white townsfolk call her dirty swamp trash and want to forget that she exists. She becomes The Marsh Girl and myths surrounding her start to evolve.
Then she meets Tate. Their kinship develops through their shared love of the marsh and its creatures. Tate teaches Kya to read. "I wadn't aware that words could hold so much." They fall in love and Kya finds "for the first time in her life, her heart was full".
But Tate leaves her to go to college and she is alone again, watching from behind the safety of the palmetto trees as teens her age frolic and have fun. She notices the town's football hero and lothario, Chase Andrews. He is interested in her too. "You're gorgeous, free, wild as a dang gale."
This takes us full circle to the other timeline in the book which is a murder. In 1969, Chase's body is found in the swamp. It looks like he committed suicide, jumping from the firetower. But a lack of fingerprints and footprints suggests that someone covered up the death.The Marsh Girl is a suspect. But did she have the motive and opportunity to kill him?
Owen writes about Kya: "She knew the years of isolation had altered her behaviour until she was different from others, but it wasn't her fault she'd been alone. Most of what she knew, she'd learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored and protected her when no-one else would." @Jenniferdplatt
*Crawdads are small freshwater crustaceans that resemble a lobster or crayfish