Image courtesy of Little, Brown Book Group
By Caroline Morris
The marsh holds onto everything. Beauty. Secrets. Bodies. And the untamed truth of Kya Clark, the Marsh Girl.
Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens, has been a literary force of nature since its publication in 2018. The novel has spent upwards of 120 weeks on the bestseller list and roosted at number one for many weeks in both the 2019 and 2020 New York Times Fiction Best Sellers lists.
The story takes place on the marshy coast of North Carolina, the timeline bouncing around the years between 1952 and 1970. The protagonist is Kya Clark, known as the Marsh Girl, who was abandoned by her family as a child and learned to survive on her own by making a family of the marsh. The novel follows her journey through survival, growing up, and ultimately a murder trial, in which she must defend against the accusation that she murdered Chase Andrews, her old flame.
This is Owens’s first novel, but not her first book, as she has previously published three nonfiction books about her own life as a wildlife scientist. Her expertise in zoology greatly informed and inspired her debut in fiction.
But the strength of Owens’s writing does not simply come from her technical knowledge. The novel is beautifully written. Owens’s lush style truly illuminates the beauty of the marsh, a locale even those in the novel living just a town away struggle to see.
“Kya waltzed to the music of katydids and leopard frogs.”
Kya Clark is at one with the marsh, her only consistent family, and Owens weaves this reality into her descriptions. Nature is constantly being personified and human experience is described in terms of animality. Kya herself, living a lifetime of isolation, walks the line between humanity and the marsh, always falling back into the arms of nature when people inevitably fail her.
Owens is also masterful in her ability to ask existential questions implicitly. By taking the audience through Kya’s life and coming of age as she grows from age six to 23, Owens makes the reader ask questions about the power of a name, the role of perception in a person’s identity, the pain of prejudice, the illogical experience of love, and the influence loneliness can hold over a person.
The most important question and theme is held in the title: Where the Crawdads Sing. This line is found only a few times in the novel, and the first time the phrase is explained by Kya’s first love interest, Tate.
“Just means far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters.”
At first glance it is just an explanation of an old colloquialism, and is quickly brushed off in the novel itself. But Kya, living alone in the marsh for so long that it has come to recognize her as one of its own, is privy to the places where the crawdads sing. She is an expert in animal behavior, and a stranger to human society.
So it begs the question: if the wilderness is where animals act most like animals, where does a person behave most like a person? Kya spends her life alone in the wilderness of the marsh, and thus she is perceived to be strange and wrong. But none of the other characters who are ingrained into society seem to come even close to embodying the truth of how a person should be. The contemplation this one line evokes in the reader without ever explicitly asking its question is a triumph in nuance and style.
The portrayal of human connection is also a cornerstone of this novel. Although the plot involves a murder mystery, it almost takes a back seat to the insatiable desire to observe Kya’s life. It feels counterintuitive, yet it cannot be helped. Both plots, the murder trial and Kya’s life, play with the human desire for intrigue, and ultimately seeing a six year old girl abandoned to the marsh by her entire family, including her abusive father, is the greater draw. Watching Kya navigate life is undeniably captivating, as the audience craves to see her claw some sort of goodness out of a life that has left her bereft of happiness. And this journey is heartbreaking, especially hearing it from Kya’s mouth: “by myself is all I’ve ever known.”
The novel falls short primarily in its narration style. Owens writes using free indirect discourse, which allows a third person narrator to inhabit the minds of multiple characters while remaining a separate entity to provide information and description a single character would not provide. While this choice assists Owens in crafting her descriptions of the marsh, which is at the heart of what makes Crawdads so compelling, it creates a distance between the reader and Kya.
The audience spends the majority of the book with the Marsh Girl, and watches her grow, and yet by the end of the novel Kya stills feels like a cold and distant mystery. Perhaps this is intentional, that people who have lived lives in cities and suburbia, who have no love for the marsh, could never fully understand Kya. But it ultimately leaves the reader, who likely devoured this beautiful novel, able to walk away without missing Kya once the cover is shut.
Where the Crawdads Sing is an absolute must-read. From the first moment, the reader is transported to the marsh, and the marsh does not let go until the last page. Owens crafts a world of incredibly delicate beauty contrasted against the intense pain of an abandoned girl who was too young to be raised by the wilderness and too old to forget that she once had a family. The novel both captures and questions the meaning of being human and leaves readers wondering how human they are themselves.