The reputation of Where the Crawdads Sing is gigantic. 72-year-old zoologist Delia Owens’ debut novel has garnered the best reviews from critics around the world, and sat on The New York Times Best Fiction Sellers list for 124 weeks.
Is this novel – the one about an abandoned young child who learns to survive all alone in a secluded marsh – worth the hype? Oh, it’s worth it all right.
I was hooked from the off: something about the young girl, Kya, and her incredible knack for survival from the age of around seven-years-old just latched on to me and wouldn’t let go.
Some readers feel that Owens’ first 140 pages or so are unnecessary, as the murder trial – yes, that’s right: this one’s a murder mystery too – doesn’t begin until around then. I wholeheartedly disagree. Owens’ Part One is essential to understanding Kya, the marsh, the love and the loss. She watches her entire family walk out on her, one by one. She falls in love. She is left again. She is romanced again. She is exploited. She is suspected of murder and put on trial for it.
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Where the Crawdads Sing is filled with incredibly smart and beautiful observations about nature. Kya belongs to her marsh, can talk to the birds, can survive off of her own land. The prose describing all of this is stunning and although that kind of description often bores me to death, the way Owens writes – with all her biology knowledge and clear mastery of fiction-writing – does the opposite. I loved this novel from the first page.
It’s not just Kya present in Crawdads, though. It’s Tate, her first love, who matters, too. He teaches Kya how to read and write – the key to unlocking her potential. They fall in love, but not because of this – there are so many other reasons. They both adore the same land, the animals, the nature and each other.
This novel is told along two converging time zones and Tate is present in both of them. That is important.
When it comes to the murder trial of popular quarterback Chase Andrews, Where the Crawdads Sing ups the ante on tension. I could not put the book down after page 140. Every turn of the page was another twist, development, or potential problem for Kya, who – despite everything – manages to get herself in a half-decent place. I was on edge the whole time during this part of the novel. The girl we watch morph from an abused child into a young woman starting her period without realising what it was, and then again into a fully-grown adult with an incredible scientific documentation of the marsh she comes to own is the one you instinctively want to protect as the reader.
When Kya is accused of murder, the reader becomes the mother the protagonist lost.
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Echoes of To Kill A Mockingbird are also present in Crawdads. A trial, a young girl defying the norms of society, the relationship between African Americans and white Americans, and the description of 1960s Southern America. It’s all there and is a proven formula for a successful novel, but one Owens makes her own. Undeniably so.
Where the Crawdads Sing moved me and made me hold my breath. I physically didn’t move for hours.
A stellar, superb achievement from Delia Owens. One I will hold dear to my heart.