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Book review: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Where the Crawdads Sing, the debut novel by natural scientist Delia Owens, has achieved phenomenal success since its publication last year.

The novel is set in a marshland in North Carolina in the 1950s and 1960s. Hidden in the maze of waterways is the shack of Kya, the protagonist, disparagingly called the "marsh girl" by those in town. Kya is the youngest of five children. After her beloved mother and siblings flee their abusive father one after another, Kya is left fending for herself, deprived of familial love and education. Her only source of sustenance, as well as consolation for loneliness, is the rich wildlife of the marsh.

Thanks to help from Tate, a young boy who shares Kya's love of the otherworldly beauty of the marsh, Kya learns to read and write. Passion grows between the two, but when Tate gets an offer from university and, much to his regret, leaves Kya without saying goodbye, Kya's only connection with the human world ends abruptly. Abandoned yet again, Kya comes to realise that all she needs is being left alone, but then the courtship of Chase, handsome and carefree, disrupts her solitude. Already disillusioned by the way of the world, will she give it one more chance?

The depiction of Kya's longings and disillusionment intertwines with the investigation of a murder — the murder of Chase. The two alternating timelines converge and culminate in the trial of Kya and an ending that is both surprising and fitting.

To me, Where the Crawdads Sing is as much a novel as an encyclopedia of wildlife of North Carolina marshlands. The dazzling array of flora and fauna attests to the author's knowledge and love of the natural world. When Tate seeks to approach Kya, he leaves behind feathers on a stump — first a feather of a great blue heron ("A great blue heron is the color of gray mist reflecting in blue water"), followed by "a magnificent tail feather of a tropicbird" and ultimately a "silver and soft" feather from the crest of a night heron, "one of the most beautiful of the marsh".

But it is the interweaving of the author's observation — through Kya's eyes — of animal behaviour and Kya's interpretation of the dynamics of the outside world that marks the book's literary distinctiveness. One example is how she makes sense of her mum's falling for her dad. To Kya, her dad was like a pint-sized male bullfrog that is "not strong, adorned, or smart enough to hold good territories", but "struts about" pretentiously to attract a mate. The study of animal behaviour, academically referred to as ethology, also holds the key to solving the murder case, the details of which I am not disclosing here.

Another distinctive, recurring motif is loneliness — first foisted upon Kya who then seems to embrace it willingly. "She knew the years of isolation had altered her behavior until she was different from others, but it wasn't her fault she'd been alone. Most of what she knew, she'd learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would," writes the author. In fact, Delia Owens has said that Where the Crawdads Sing is indeed "about loneliness", adding that "I have lived an isolated and lonely life."

That being its pervading mood, Where the Crawdads Sing is more than a celebration of nature — it is also one of solitude and remoteness. "Far from the madding crowd", to borrow the title of Thomas Hardy's classic.

◆About the author

Delia Owens published this novel, her first and a New York Times bestseller, last year at the age of 69, though she had written three scientific books with her then husband previously.

◆What does the title mean?

The crawdad is the North America term for a freshwater crayfish. As the author said in an interview, as a young girl she was encouraged by her mother to go as far as "where the crawdads sing", i.e. to explore nature as deeply as possible.

◆What to expect?

Depictions of nature in poetic language with profuse use of tropes. A murder mystery and a coming-of-age story.

◆A difficult read?

The opening chapters can be hard as they overflow with animal and plant names, but midway into the novel you should turn the pages much more swiftly having got quite familiar with those names.

Originally published in Ming Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper, on 22 October 2019.

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