Book review and synopsis for Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, a coming-of-age crime drama about a girl growing up alone in the marshes of North Carolina.
In Where the Crawdads Sing, Kya is known in her town as the "Marsh Girl." She grows up in a shack out in the marshes bordering a small village on the coast of North Carolina. Her mother and her four older siblings all leave to get away from their abusive father, leaving her behind to fend for herself. Eventually, her father disappears as well.
Where the Crawdads Sing is part bildungsroman and part crime drama, centered around Kya, a wild and unkempt girl. The book follows the ups and downs of her life. She lives a lonely life, but her story is a hopeful one as well. With a little help, she's able to survive and even learn to read.
Despite her status as an outcast, her natural beauty catches the eye of two men in town. However, when the body of Chase Andrews, the local hotshot, is discovered in the marshes, she quickly becomes a prime suspect. The fragile life she has struggled and fought so hard to build is at risk.
The Prologue opens with the discovery of the body of Chase Andrews in a swamp in 1969.
In Part I, Kya Clark grows up with her abusive father in a shack in the swampy outskirts of town in the 1950's (her mother and siblings all leave due because of Pa's abuse). Kya meets Tate, a boy from town that befriends her. When Kya is 10, Pa disappears (a couple nearby, Jumpin' and Mabel, help Kya to survive). As she grows up, Kya develops a keen knowledge of the outdoors. Kya and Tate reconnect, he teaches her to read, and it grows into a romance. When Tate leaves for college, he promises to come back, but later Tate worries that Kya (wild and unkempt) can't fit into his world. He doesn't return, and Kya gives up on him.
(Flash forward) Many years later, the body of Chase Andrews, the town hotshot and ladies' man, is found in the swamp at the bottom of the fire tower. An investigation starts up.
In Part II, Kya is now 19. Chase Andrews has been pursuing Kya aggressively, and she finally gives in to his advances. One day, Chase takes her to the fire tower, and she gives him a shell necklace as a gift. He promises to marry her, but Kya soon discovers that Chase is actually engaged to someone else. She dumps him. Meanwhile, Tate comes back and apologizes for what happened. He also wants to help Kya turn her nature diagrams into a book. Eventually, Kya's book is published in 1968.
In 1969, Kya is identified as a suspect in the Chase Andrews murder. Notably, Chase's shell necklace that he always wore was not found on his body. Eventually, Kya is arrested for Chase's death. The trial proceeds (reviewing evidence such as the missing necklace, fibers found on Chase's body, Kya's whereabouts, plus Chase had attacked Kya after being rebuffed two months before his death). But Kya is found not guilty, and she and Tate profess their love for each other.
Time passes, and Kya and Tate turn her shack into a nice cottage and remain there. Kya passes away at 64. Tate goes through her things and discovers evidence (in the form of a poem Kya wrote under a pseudonym and notably Chase's shell necklace) that Kya killed Chase. The book ends with Tate destroying the poems and tossing the necklace into the ocean.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens opens with a picture of a map and the discovery of a dead body in the marshes of North Carolina.
I was intrigued immediately when I saw it in the bookstore, though I put off reading it for a while. Ultimately, though, my curiosity won out as it hung in the bestseller lists, and I’m very glad it did.
Where the Crawdads Sing is about resiliency and survival, but also alienation. I loved the part about Kya’s childhood; it made for a unique story line as Kya learns to navigate the world on her own. The story focuses thematically a lot on her status as an outcast and sense of abandonment, as she is forced to fend for herself. In terms of pacing, it is eventful and mostly fast-moving.
Kya’s story has elements of romance, mystery and even a courtroom thriller interlude. Nature enthusiasts will also enjoy this book, as Kya’s love of the nature around her is conveyed through detailed descriptions of the flora and fauna, a reflection of the author’s background as a former wildlife scientist.
The compelling imagery is descriptive in the right places and sparse when it serves the story better instead. The book has a strong sense of place, transporting you to a different life where you can smell the salty air and sink your feet into the muddy grounds outside the seaside village.
Meanwhile, the discovery of a dead body leads to the Chase Andrews investigation that provides the suspense in the story. Kya’s story is also interspersed with flash-forwards detailing the progress of the investigation. I found this worked well, adding an element of mystery, since it’s not clear how it will play out for Kya or what exactly happened that night. There’s compelling evidence on both sides and the pacing of the investigation is spot-on, making for pleasurable and suspenseful reading.
As she heads into her teenage years, the romantic storylines start kicking in, and the melodrama starts ramping up as well. My enthusiasm waned a little bit at this point. The book is increasingly divorced from reality (the idea that a teenage boy would teach her not only to read but about her period seemed far-fetched, and it goes on from there) and plot events get a bit contrived.
Additionally, Kya’s internal journey, her mentally processing the events of her life, felt a little surface level. She struggles with being abandoned by her mother, and the book brings in interesting parallels to nature, but beyond that, events simply happen without much reflection. It felt like there were a number of missed opportunity for it to be a more insightful book.
But, for whatever criticisms I had while reading, the story easily won me over. As it approaches the date of the crime and the investigation ramps up, I was totally engrossed.
Read it or Skip It?
I read this book quickly and found myself delighted by it by the end. The book is more melodrama than a serious literary novel, but is such an engaging story that it’s easy to accept. It’s part romance, mystery, courtroom drama and ode to nature, all of which make for an appealing tale about the town outcast.
The setting is a distinctive “slice-of-life” that’s commonplace, yet not often portrayed clearly in books or movies. It is vividly drawn in a way that infuses the story with energy, a credit to Owen’s genuine love and respect for nature.
Where the Crawdads Sing has been very popular among book clubs, and deservedly so. It’s eventful and accessible, but thoughtfully written, all of which make it a good choice for readers of varying tastes. See it on Amazon or Book Depository.
Highly Recommended Published August 14, 2018
Page Count 384 pages
Goodreads4.43 (out of 5)
From the Publisher
For years, rumors of the "Marsh Girl" have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life--until the unthinkable happens.