The hidden splendor of coastal North Carolina is the true starring character of Delia Owen’s first novel, Where the Crawdads Sing. With a naturalist’s eye, Owens uses the poetry of fiction to capture the mysterious beauty of the marsh in exquisite detail. The freshwater wetland comes to life through the eyes of its main co-star Kya, who is forced to fend for herself in its vibrant wilderness as a child.
Wholly abandoned by her family, Kya learns to scrabble her way to surviving–and, ultimately, thriving–in the untamed environment. While her knowledge and love of the flora and fauna that surrounds her expands meteorically as she matures into young womanhood, the enigmatic beauty is a much slower study of human nature. When it comes to coexisting with other humans, Kya treads in unfamiliar waters. Generally, she is hesitant to grant others her trust, though, when it comes to romance, her pace proves uneven. When she is not actively front crawling away from human affection, she finds herself nearly drowning in heartbreak, aching solitude, and even physical danger.
The novel opens with riveting and infectious prose, but it eventually meanders and crawls to a sluggish and plodding pace. This is largely due to the fact that this novel suffers from an identity problem: It wants to simultaneously be a romance novel, murder mystery, family drama and definitive work of nature writing. To me, it only truly shines at the latter.
The physical danger Kya gets wrapped up in is what ultimately produced what I felt was the least intriguing aspect of the novel. The murder mystery plot is anemic at best, and all the secondary players read like worn clichés. At its worst, the nature-filled metaphors for entrapment feel far too heavy-handed. Stubbornness more than infectious curiosity that kept me from stopping the novel midway.
While Tate’s abiding love and devotion to Kya and her livelihood were endearing, I found myself not really caring if the two would survive beyond a childhood romance. Perhaps the ‘educated man-as-savior’ trope rubbed me the wrong way. Or it was the way he got a pass, of sorts, after so abruptly and completely disappearing from his love’s life in the first place. I felt that Tate didn’t give a thorough explanation to Kya, and thus, the author didn’t give a real one to the reader either.
Similarly, I felt Kya was almost too forgiving of the family that left her alone to deal with a drunk, abusive father. While I empathized with the internal struggles of certain members of her family, there is no real satisfying explanation as to why no one could bother to take Kya with them when they left. It is no wonder that she has such crippling trust issues or why her first instinct is to run.
Despite these issues, Owen’s mastery of descriptive narration earned by authentic respect and admiration, and I look forward to finally reading her nonfiction nature writing. I felt her novel truly shined in its expert exploration and tender tribute to the majesty of nature, evoking a renewed sense of awe and wonder in me for wildlife. Reading this lit a spark in me to learn more of the world that exists outside the dictated confines of these suburban walls. I am eager to stoke the fire from a casually interested passerby to a fully immersed and knowledgeable observer of nature’s treasured sights and sounds.