Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is the story of Kya, a girl who lives in a beautiful wild marsh in the American South in the 1960s. Abandoned by her parents to fend for herself, Kya learns to live off the marsh and keep herself alive, but her existence becomes more complicated as she gets older and people from the outside start to intrude on her world.
It’s a coming-of-age story, which I like, and it has beautiful descriptions of nature, which I also like, so I should have lapped this book up. But I did not lap it up. I found this book clumsy and unsettling, and I was very glad to finish it.
The book’s strength is, without a doubt, the beautiful descriptions of the natural world. Delia Owens is a nature writer, and Kya’s love of the wild and attention to detail feel very real and authentic. The marsh is beautifully rendered with colour and texture, and Owens’ writing here is a vivid mixture of aesthetic and scientific minutiae. As a piece of world building and environmental appreciation, it’s an amazing text.
Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn’t know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land who caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.
However, the book’s weaknesses are unfortunately the fundamentals of good storytelling. The dialogue is clunky and strange. I understand that Kya, isolated from the outside world and spending a good portion of her time reading scientific texts, would develop a more formal register, but when every character speaks like they’re reading from a textbook, it becomes less a matter of voice and more a matter of clumsy writing. This clumsiness extends to the characters, and they were what really let this book down for me. I hesitate to use the phrase Mary Sue, as it’s a term that has been abused in recent years, but I think it’s accurate to use it here. Broadly speaking, a Mary Sue is a chronically perfect character who is always more than the people around them. Everyone is obsessed with Kya. The villagers are taken by her striking appearance and loner behaviour, either vilifying or deifying her. Tate and Chase, two of the three main male characters, are so bewitched by her beauty that they instantly decide they must pursue her romantically and sexually. The other main male character, Jumpin’, says he sees her as his own daughter, even though their interactions have been mainly chitchat and business transactions. Her older brother says that the only thing he’s ever wanted in his entire life is for her to be safe. When (Spoiler alert!) she goes on trial, the courthouse cat shows an unprecedented affection for her. And when she finally dies after an amazing accolade-ridden career as a writer and artist, the entire town comes to her funeral.
Adding onto this, there is some content that I’m not sure Owens realises is actually quite disturbing. When Kya and Tate fall in love, Tate pushes for their relationship to become physical. It’s implied that Kya is into this, but we’re also repeatedly told how shy and afraid she is, and given that their relationship starts when Kya is fifteen and Tate is nineteen, it feels like a real imbalance of power between them. During their first sexual encounter, Kya covers herself with her hands, and Tate firmly moves her arms away so that he can ogle her. Yet Tate is presented as the good, suitable romantic option, with whom Kya eventually settles down. If this was intended to be creepy behaviour, there’s nothing in the text that critiques this—there’s no moment where either character comments on what happened between them, and Kya never feels uncomfortable about Tate’s behaviour as she does with Chase’s. Similarly there’s a scene where Kya says that she brought an attempted sexual assault on herself, and many instances of people (men) saying that Kya isn’t like other girls. I know that it’s a difficult line when writing historical fiction, balancing historical attitudes with modern thought, but when things like abuse of power, slut shaming, and demonising other women are still very prevalent in our culture, it feels careless for a text to present those attitudes without any attempt at critique.
I enjoyed the descriptions of the marsh and the details of the wildlife and setting, but ultimately this book was a big disappointment.
© 2020 Alice Olivia Scarlett
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.