Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

We like to think of science and arts as being distinctly separate fields. Science is logic and reason, art is creativity and passion. You are this type of person, or this type of person. A Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens combined these two halves into one fluid whole. As both a novelist and scientist, Owens was well equipped. She did this so seamlessly that by the book’s close, it’s difficult to know where one world ended and the other began.  

The story is set between 1952 and 1970 and follows Marsh Girl, Kya, from abandoned child, running wild in the swamps of North Carolina, to a young woman. She becomes a talented naturalist, analysing every lichen, leaf and feather, and drawing intimate portraits of them. But she is unable to shake off her reputation with the townsfolk. She is an outsider, in the truest sense of the word.

Kya is “bonded to her planet and its life in a way few people are”. She has spent most of life alone, but not without friends – characters which lift this novel into life. In a sometimes confusing switch between timelines, Where the Crawdads Sing centres around a murder. It climaxes with all the flurry and drama of a court case, but only after a succulently slow build.

“And just at that second, the wind picked up, and thousands upon thousands of yellow sycamore leaves broke from their life support and streamed across the sky. Autumn leaves don’t fall, they fly. They take their time and wander on this, their only chance to soar. Reflecting sunlight, they swirled and sailed and fluttered on the wind drafts.
Tate sprang from the log and called to her, ‘See how many leaves you can catch before they hit the ground!’”

Owens describes the swampland with wonder, paying equal attention to its complexity and its simplicity. This helps the reader see the landscape through the eyes of naturalist. It felt like a privilege to be privy to this world, to bare witness to its inner mechanics and whimsies.

The nearby town of Barkley Cove has a buzzing life of its own, but Owens does not gloss over its flaws. Many of the people are prejudice, racists, classist and any other kind of -ist. But there are some good ones too – Mrs Culpepper from social services, Miss Pansy from the local store, and most of all Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel.

The novel enjoys dichotomies – the most obvious being a conflict between the rule of law and the rule of nature. Even though the story has an obvious villain, the concept of morality is played with; people are not simply good or bad, but a blend of both. People make mistakes and they deserve forgiveness if they ask for it. Different sides of Kya’s self rise surface and sink back down, revealing a contrary moral compass.

“If anyone understood loneliness, the moon would.
Drifting back to the predictable cycles of tadpoles and the ballet of fireflies, Kya burrowed deeper into the wordless wilderness. Nature seemed the only stone that would not slip midstream.”

At its heart, this is a novel about loneliness. Kya is abandoned by her brothers and sisters, her mother and then her father. In some truly heart-wrenching scenes, she continues to hope that her mother will return – based on her understanding of the world, which is purely the natural world, she cannot comprehend why a mother would leave her child.

Kya has to learn independently, using the environment as her guide. Her understanding sexual relationships is learned by observing fireflies; females send signals to the males with flashes, so that the ones they want to mate with come to them. But they also send out false signals. Traps. They ensnare and kill unwanted males who are drawn by the light.

“It happens in humans too. Some behaviours that seem harsh to us now ensured the survival of early man in whatever swamp he was in at the time. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. We still store those instincts in our genes, and they express themselves when certain circumstances prevail. Some parts will always be what we were, what we had to be to survive – way back yonder.”

This is a novel that is desperately needed. It felt contemporary, it brought to the fore how little we consider ourselves as human beings, as animals, as also being integral parts of the natural world.

Kya is held up to be almost aspirational; she is “rooted solid in this earth” and “born of this mother”. Having a respect for nature is no longer good enough, we must also make efforts to understand it. Only then can we appreciate its intelligence, its intricacies, and its beautiful savagery.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (Corsair, 2018)

Support independent book shops by ordering Where the Crawdads Sing online from Bookshop.org.

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Top image credit: Rebecca Gilroy
Nails: Olive Grove by MyGel

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