As a writer, it goes without saying that I have always been an avid reader. And the older I get, the fussier I become with my reading, and the harder I am to please. But that does not seem to be the case with many other readers.
The astounding success of a number of contemporary novels that have been released to ‘great acclaim’ and shouted out as New York Times and Sunday Times bestsellers just leaves me agog, quite frankly. I get the feeling that readers nowadays – and I don’t know if this is linked specifically to any age group – are so hungry for themes that are topical, trendy, politically correct, or just downright catchy in some chic kind of way, that they’ve all but forgotten how important the actual writing is.
Thankfully, this is not the case with Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing. This is a novel that literally took my breath away. After turning the last page in bed this morning, propped up against my downy pillows and praying for all it’s worth that my mad Belgian Malinois dog would remain asleep until I finished shedding a few self-indulgent tears, I sang silent praises to the author for having granted me access to the beautiful but terrifying world she created; a world that consumed me heart, body and soul. (Okay, that’s two clichés I’ve used in this paragraph alone – so I reckon that doesn’t make me one of the literary greats.)
So what is it about this particular novel that so got under my skin, especially at a time when I find myself increasingly irritated by other novels? It wasn’t a perfect book – I’ll get to a couple of criticisms later – but it was profoundly moving, exquisitely written, believable in an unbelievable kind of way and, in some parts, as compelling as a thriller. I suppose it could be defined as a modern-day fairy tale, with all the grit and dark edges of original, uncensored fairy tales – incorporating the full gamut of good and evil, love and hate, brutality, beauty, ugliness – but with the added plausibility of real, rugged earthiness. It was a novel that made me feel alive; that made me look at my own existence in a different way. Here was a writer who knew how to write about love, loss and solitude in a manner that resonated with me wholeheartedly.
In a nutshell, Where the Crawdads Sing is the haunting story of Kya, better known by the narrow-minded local villagers as the ‘marsh girl’ – a child who was abandoned by her impoverished family and forced to live entirely alone, fending for herself in a tumbledown shack on the wild coast of North Carolina. It is a story of love found in unexpected places; it’s also a story of rediscovery, inner-belief and self-development. Ultimately, it is a story of hope and determination. A story about the will to live, to be loved, and to persevere against all odds. There are two concurrent timelines that interweave throughout the novel – one of them in 1969/70, the other in the 1950s – until eventually they both converge into a powerful denouement. The modern-day timeline follows the development of a murder enquiry; the earlier timeline centres around Kya’s childhood and her growth into womanhood.
Personally, I’m not someone who is mad about nature – although I like it enough when I behold the first buds of spring peeking out from the dormant soil in my back garden. Yet in the pages of this novel I found the author’s descriptions so seductive, at times it really was as though I was actually there, in that marshy, muddy, tangled, utterly lush coastline that permeates the entire story. It was only after finishing the novel that I read up about the author, and when I realised that she’s a scientist, then I said, Ahh! to myself, smiling in that hugely satisfying feeling of it figures! Generally speaking, I try not to read an author’s bio before finishing their book, because I don’t like being influenced in any way. I’m a firm believer that the characters and storyline in a novel should speak for themselves, and that the reader should not be aware of the author’s presence at all.
This brings me to one minor criticism. I don’t like mixed point of view, and this book has a quite lot of it. For me, I would prefer the author to disappear entirely, so that the pages of her book can be occupied purely by her characters. They are the ones who should manipulate the reader, not the author. And when you are forced inside the thoughts of more than one character at a time, within the same chapter, that’s when the authorial presence takes over. Get out! I want to yell. Let me be alone with your characters!
The other minor criticism I have is that the final quarter of the novel turns into a courtroom drama, which I felt was a little too long and somewhat out of keeping with the mood of the rest of the story. But at the same time I was still glued to the pages, so I’m not even sure if this is a valid criticism.
But the very fact that, despite those two criticisms, I still feel compelled to give this novel a five-star rating, shows just how deeply I fell in love with it. When you’re truly besotted with a person, you don’t care about the faults in them, right? You know the faults are there – the bad teeth or skinny frame or over-critical nature – but somehow, you just overlook them. That’s the magic of love.
When the Crawdads Sing was true magic for me. I am infinitely grateful to Delia Owens for having lit up my life for the too-short time that I was allowed to be part of her marshy, lonely, at times cruel, yet ultimately beautiful, world.