THE books that I enjoy most, I have found, are often those that come by personal recommendation. That was the case here. Its title had lodged somewhere: Where the Crawdads Sing is striking and evocative; but it was only when someone handed me a copy that I found myself up to my knees in the marshes of coastal North Carolina.
This first novel by the wildlife scientist and nature writer Delia Owens blends genres: Owens’s own award-winning nature writing, a coming of age story, and a murder mystery.
At six years old, Kya Clark hears the screen door slap. It’s her mother, leaving — leaving for good, tired of the beatings and ritual cruelty of her drunken husband. It is 1952, and, one by one, her four much older siblings leave, too — including her brother Jodie, closest in age, and Kya’s confidant and mentor.
She is effectively alone and friendless, in a tumbledown shack on a remote marsh lagoon. Some days her father is there, on others he isn’t; some days he is sober, on others he has passed out with cheap liquor. On the good days, Kya gleans from him enough rudimentary knowledge to work the boat’s outboard, to fish, and forage. It is just as well, because, not much later, when she is still only ten, he leaves the shack and never returns.
Kya goes feral. Selling mussels to Jumpin’, the kind, black, proprietor of Jumpin’s Gas and Bait, she scrabbles enough money for basics and fuel for the boat. Wary of contact with the adult world, she remains hidden among the reeds and palmetto trees, protected by the almost impenetrable vein-like network of creeks and lagoons and marsh mud that could swallow a human whole.
© Dawn Marie Tucker© Dawn Marie Tucker
The small, gossip-hungry town of Barkley Cove turns Kya into a legendary figure, the “Marsh Girl”, a wild, elusive creature who becomes a focus of fascination, prejudice, and fear.
Her storyline runs parallel with another. From the very start, we know that, in 1969 — by which time Kya is in her twenties — a young man, Chase Andrews (one of the town’s prosperous elite), has fallen to his death from the local fire tower into the swamp below. The circumstances are dubious, and suspicions turn towards the mysterious Marsh Girl.
But, before that narrative matures, Kya has a lot of growing to do, and this is the rich substance of the novel. This lonely child becomes a marsh expert. She spends time and close attention, living cheek-by-jowl with the seasonal and tidal rhythms of her habitat. She becomes part of it: “The lagoon smelled of life and death at once, an organic jumbling of promise and decay. Frogs croaked . . . she watched fireflies scribbling across the night. She never collected lightning bugs in bottles because you learn a lot more about something when it’s not in a jar.”
Owens writes lyrically and knowledgeably about marsh life — to such a degree that your skin prickles with sweat, and you feel the sand between your toes. And you experience, almost viscerally, Kya’s life as a kind of flight animal, alert to every bird alarm call, or rustle in the reeds.
But her solitude does not remain inviolate. Another, lonely, slightly marooned child, Tate — a few years older than her — makes overtures. He, too, knows, and loves, the marsh intimately. With caution and tenderness he communicates his love of their surroundings with her. And, responding to Kya’s thirst for knowledge, he teaches this unschooled girl to read.
Slowly, Kya’s natural intelligence begins to blossom. Reading books such as Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, she builds her observations into knowledge: “She learned where the geese go in winter, and the meaning of their music. His soft words, sounding almost like poetry, taught her that soil is packed with life and one of the most precious riches on earth.”
Leopold also introduces her to the joy of reading, and the wonders of language itself. “She spoke in almost a whisper. ‘I wadn’t aware that words could hold so much. I didn’t know a sentence could be so full.’”
This is a springboard for Kya’s development: her mind becomes stocked not just with instinctive understanding, but also with science, poetry, art, and history. But even as she grows in maturity and confidence, reaching out of her shell, she continues to experience betrayal, never quite finding the ability to trust anyone but herself.
Also, just as we delight in her flourishing, and the astonishingly portrayed opulence of her marsh biosphere, the tension provided by the police investigation into Chase Andrews’s suspicious death increases the sense of jeopardy. And this is what tugs the reader remorselessly to the end of the story, complete with a deft twist in the tail.
For most of her life, Kya wants to find a haven “where the crawdads [crayfish] sing”, a place “far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters”. The story asks whether you can enjoy solitude without loneliness, and whether, to survive, you have to wall off your heart, because — despite what they promise — “people don’t stay.” This humid, salty marsh is a richly satisfying place to explore those questions.
Malcolm Doney is a writer, broadcaster, and Anglican priest.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is published by Corsair at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-4721-5466-8.
WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING — SOME QUESTIONS
- Does this book, with its focus on isolation, have particular resonance for you in the current global situation? How?
- “Just forget it. No god’s gonna come to this garden.” Does Kya find a version of God, in the end, or not?
- How can we find trust after repeated disappointment? How might you advise Kya when she is struggling to do this?
- “The last step, a trap.” What do you make of the ending, revealing the truth about Chase’s death? Was the act justified?
- What is the significance of Kya’s finding the family Bible, and the names of her family members?
- What is the relationship between the way people speak, and how they are treated, in this novel?
- Why do you think Kya is so much better treated by Jumpin’, Mabel, and members of the “colored” churches?
- “Evil was not in play, just life pulsing on, even at the expense of some of the players.” Kya believes that good and evil do not exist in nature. How would you answer her?
- “I wadn’t aware that words could hold so much”. What is the significance of literature, particularly poetry, in the novel?
- Towards the end of the novel, Kya describes “Feeling the connections.” What does the book tell us about the importance of connections, with both the human and the more-than-human? How are you exploring connections at the moment?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 5 June, we will print extra information about our next book, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. It is published by Collins Classics at £6.99 (£6.30); 978-0-00-829651-3.
First published under an assumed name, Gulliver’s Travels is a parody of the popular 18th-century genre of the travel memoir. The reader follows Lemuel Gulliver, ship’s surgeon, on his adventures over four voyages, in which he meets not only the tiny people of Lilliput and the giants of Brobdingnag, but also the clever but impractical inhabitants of the flying island of Laputa, the aged and infirm immortals of Luggnagg, and the philosophical Houyhnhnms — talking horses who rule over human-like Yahoos. Clever, funny, and profound, Swift’s classic satire still makes us question our societies, our follies, and ourselves.
The satirist and political writer Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was born in Dublin, and brought up by relatives after his father died and his mother returned to England. He graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, before spending much of his young adulthood in England, where he hoped to remain. Ordained priest in the Church of Ireland in 1695, however, he was appointed Vicar of Laracor, before becoming Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, in 1713, a position that he held for the rest of his life. Here, he wrote many of his best-known satirical novels, including Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
July: Honour by Elif Shafak
August: Florence Nightingale: The woman and her legend by Mark Bostridge