Lengthy descriptive passages, a frustratingly reclusive protagonist, and a smattering of low-quality poetry – not normally the recipe for a popular novel.
Nevertheless, in Where the Crawdads Sing these are the very elements that will quickly captivate even the most sceptical readers. What is so engaging about this book is that it defies simple genre conventions; it is at once a murder mystery, an atypical coming of age story, a romance, and a court-room drama. Owens elegant prose effortlessly weaves between these disparate modes of storytelling, even as readers find themselves abruptly relocated to the courtroom, a world that is in our protagonist Kya’s words “not as poetic as the language of the marsh”.
The debut fiction novel from Delia Owens remains on the New York Times bestseller list for its 39th week on the list since its release in 2018. But whilst Where the Crawdads Sing might be Owens’ first novel, it is not her first book. Owens has a Ph.D. in Animal Behaviour and her previous work includes internationally bestselling books about wildlife and highly accoladed nature writing. Such details will not surprise those who have read the novel and were transported into the extraordinary world of the marsh with Kya, under the “paint-brushed sky” of the North Carolina coast.
The story opens with two young boys stumbling across the dead body of town heartthrob Chase Andrews in 1969. It’s a scene that crime fiction readers will be familiar with, and one that is easy to picture on the big screen. In fact, the book has already been acquired by Reese Witherspoon’s production company to be made into a feature film. Nevertheless, Owens doesn’t dwell on the more formulaic elements of the novel for long. Much of the novel is dedicated to watching the abandoned Kya navigate the challenges of growing up alone in the marsh that she calls home and it’s much harder to imagine how extended moments of silence amongst nature will be successfully adapted for a film.
The story bounces back and forth in time between 1952 and 1970, Owens simultaneously building the mystery of Chases’ murder with Kya’s gradual ageing from a savage, uneducated six-year-old, to a beautiful young woman with an exceptional knowledge of the marsh wildlife. Some may not enjoy Kya’s introduction with young love, as the development of her relationship with Tate teeters into Young Adult territory. However, this narrative slip felt reasonably accurate for a loner with almost no understanding of human relationships, making her first naïve experience with romance feel all the more believable.
Where the Crawdads Sing is a beautifully written novel with a page-turning plot that keeps you guessing until literally the final page. Owens also successfully immerses readers into the unfamiliar but magnificent new world of Kya’s home, the marsh. If those things aren’t enough to satisfy you as a reader, then perhaps you won’t enjoy this book. But I sure did.