‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ is undoubtedly a beautiful book. It tells the story of Kya the ‘Marsh Girl’ as she is abandoned by her entire family. Living in poverty, she forms an inextricable bond to the nature of the marshland where she lives. The marsh keeps her alive and nurtures her soul, but the allure of human connection remains allusive as she blossoms into her teenage years and then becomes a young woman. Kya lives on the brink of the wild and civilisation, a fascinating moment of ‘being in the middle’ that Delia Owens uses to highlight the harsh realities for those that are isolated from human communities.
Set against a vivid backdrop of a 1960s American small-town community, place and time coalesce to form a dramatic depiction of a smart, beautiful young woman caught in the middle of two lives that pull her in different directions. The water of the marsh becomes murky swamp, as Kya’s romantic connections lead to scandalous murder. The ‘Marsh Girl’ comes under fire from the suspicious community that lives on the edges of her beloved nature reserve. Delia Owens interweaves the beauty of the marsh with the fraught society that develops around the growing Kya. As ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ delves further into the mystery of Kya’s life, so do the readers’ attachments develop to Owens’ deeply character driven book.
Kya the outsider is a beautiful child, adolescent and then woman. She is captivating. The pinnacle of mystery and savagery: perfectly toned from the hardness of her lifestyle and starvation in the wild. It is possible to feel slightly let down by Kya’s stunning beauty, years surviving in marsh land by herself, subjected to child abuse and neglect and her unique selling point is her attractiveness? Surely not. Even further, Kya’s stunning appearance leads to the perfect storm of her later abuse by men, a sexy excuse for female suffering. Kya’s other USP is her artwork and drawing skills, a hobby that felt like an after-thought in the wake of her wild sex appeal. However, Delia Owens’ explorations of the Marsh Girl’s relationships with those around her is gripping and adds a nuance that is definitely needed to diversify the typical ‘beautiful female savage’ trope.
The tragedy of Kya’s numerous glimpses of hope and subsequent rejections were equally painful as they were enthralling. At the core of the book is a coming-of-age story that subtly and successfully indicates the process of maturing. Although a particularly heart-wrenching series of events unfurl around young Kya, Owens demonstrates the awkwardness and the shyness, that comes with being a young adolescent girl catching her first glimpses of love and connection. An experience that most, if not all people, can connect to. We witness her innocence, being estranged from the outside world, completely eradicated by people who let her down and take advantage of her heart that longs for companionship.
Owens offsets these moments with delicate and nurturing scenes of nature, as the protagonist finds recluse with the gulls and the sand. Kya finds unlikely parental figures in both the wildlife that seems to grow almost as she does, in unison, and with other people of whom the savagery of their society isolates. It is in these moments that Owens highlights her remarkable skill at illustrating complex identities and landscapes, creating people that are intimately bound with the time and place in which they are written into.
Although Kya’s ethereal and unlikely beauty somewhat undermines the poignancy of the book – does a woman have to be hot to be interesting? – ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ maintains its complexity in its landscapes and interpersonal relationships. The murder mystery element is essential to the social commentary that Owens provides about how we treat people who don’t fit into the ‘normal’ standards of society. It adds depth to an otherwise more basic plot line of female savage turned sex-symbol. In essence, Kya’s pathos is created through how she interacts with the natural world and those she loves. This is what defines ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ as a book worthy of the hype that has surrounded it. Delia Owens demonstrates her ability to amalgamate a variety of different genres into a poetically written novel, as rich in variety as the marshy landscape in which Kya resides.