‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ by Delia Owens

2020, 384 p.

If I had been the person who identifies the genre in marketing a book, how would I have classified this book? It starts off with a murder, moves into a sensitive depiction of neglect and isolation, interweaves evocative descriptions of landscape and nature, shifts towards being a coming-of-age novel and ends up in a court case. It is like five books in one, and I’m undecided whether it is a skilful mish-mash of genres, or whether it is a genuine attempt to move beyond the murder/courtroom genre by providing a protagonist with nuance, depth and change over time.

The chronological narrative shuttles between a court case and the backstory starting back in the early 1950s, gradually moving forward until the two timelines converge in 1969 with the discovery of the body of footballer and small-town Lothario Chase Andrews in the swamp. Accusations mount against Kya, the ‘Marsh Girl’, who lives alone in a shack in the North Carolina swamp marshes. In 1951, her mother walked out one day in her crocodile-skin shoes, leaving her five children to their violent, drunken father. Gradually Kya’s siblings leave home, unable to cope with their father’s beatings and neglect. At the age of six, she is left to fend for herself as her father disappears on days-long benders until he, too, disappears leaving Kya as a ten-year-old to make her own way. Able to negotiate the inlets and tides of the swamp, she earns enough money from fishing to buy bare necessities, but she does not attend school and ekes out a precarious, lonely existence. She is very much a child of the marsh, attuned to the rhythm of the tides, the turning of the seasons and the wildlife that surrounds her. The people of Barkley Cove know that she is living there, and she is shunned as ‘swamp trash’ by the people of the town, but as she grows older, she attracts the attention of two boys – Tate Walker and Chase Andrews – both of whom show remarkable restraint (at least initially) with a young, feral, unprotected girl living on her wits. Tate teaches her to read, and opens up to her an avenue by which she can draw, and write about and study the natural world that teems around her. Wary and self-sufficient, she is slow to trust either man, and as a reader you feel the latent menace of them both. Betrayal comes, as you know it must, but in different ways. When Chase Andrews’ body is found near an abandoned fire tower in the swamp, it seems to justify many of the prejudices of the people of Barkley Cove.

Of this ‘five for the price of one’ volume, I liked the landscape writing most. Delia Owens has written non-fiction environmental writing before, and she does it well. Not for nothing has she been likened to Barbara Kingsolver. The swamp is depicted as a living, breathing, moving body, and Kya is closely attuned to its movements and changes. I thought that the author captured well the fear that Kya and her siblings felt in the face of her father’s rages and neglect, and the petty and oblivious cruelties played out on her by the people of Barkley Cove. So did the book need a murder as well? For me, Owens could have rested on these two themes alone.

But if Owens was determined to have a murder and court-case, then she did write it well, even though it marked an abrupt change in pace and intent. The court case sections reminded me a bit of To Kill a Mockingbird, with its small-town setting and the rejection of a Mayella Ewell-type character, albeit in very different circumstances. I found the book a real page-turner at this point. I often rail about being left at the end of a crime book wondering ‘So who did do it?’ but there was no danger of that with this book. I just don’t know if the whole murder and its aftermath was necessary.

The part was was least convincing to me – and it’s an important plot development – is Kya’s transformation from a feral, illiterate child into a writer/scientist, with published works under her belt, and sufficient experience of the world to want to purchase comforts to make her shack more habitable without changing the outward appearance. Kya the child is plausible: Kya the adult is less so.

And so, how do I assess this book? I admit to sharing Jonathan Franzen’s wariness of a book emblazoned with an ‘Oprah Book Club’ sticker, and knowing that this book was endorsed as part of Reese Witherspoon’s book club did not necessarily endear it to me. I hadn’t noticed Tic-Toc book reviews until I searched for this book. Certainly the book has achieved best-seller status. Was the murder and court-case added to appeal to a wider audience? Or is this a book that moved beyond the two-dimensionality of many crime/court novels, just as I have often craved for them to do? I felt as if I was being buffeted around by the different genres that the book drew upon, even though most of them were done well in their own right. Perhaps it was the amalgamation of different types of writing that disconcerted me, leaving me feeling stuffed with too much plot.

My rating….a difficult one. I’d have to rate a book highly that has me sitting up in bed until 1.30 a.m. to finish it. And yet, and yet…. let’s go for 7.5

Sourced from: purchased as an e-book

Read because: Ivanhoe Reading Circle suggestion.

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