Published: 14th August 2018
Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery
For years, rumours of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. She’s barefoot and wild; unfit for polite society. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark.
But Kya is not what they say. Abandoned at age ten, she has survived on her own in the marsh that she calls home. A born naturalist with just one day of school, she takes life lessons from the land, learning from the false signals of fireflies the real way of this world.
But while she could have lived in solitude forever, the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. Drawn to two young men from town, who are each intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new and startling world–until the unthinkable happens.
There are many superlatives that can be used to describe this book, for it is truly a masterpiece in almost every respect. Throughout the numerous layers of its fascinating plot, it leaves you constantly entranced by exceptional storytelling, an evocative and beautifully realised setting, and an incredible protagonist who is both unique and endlessly compelling.
With the ideal balance of mystery and romance to go with the historical elements, it is a story that immerses itself in nature and biology to conjure profound meaning. There are dual timelines that ultimately converge and help to build curiosity, while the characters are drawn so superbly that they ensure the book is infinitely memorable and moving.
The setting acts as the very essence of the book. Described with such intricate and passionate detail, the marshes of North Carolina almost act as a character in their own right. With the help of a map inside the front cover, every aspect of it from the grass to the wildlife was made to feel so immensely vivid and tangible, with the author using her broad knowledge of the subject to magical effect.
The historical context of racial segregation is also a factor in the story, though the primary themes are prejudice and loneliness; the reality of being shunned by most of society for being different to everyone else. This is examined expertly and stirs great emotion, acting as the driving force throughout the plot’s entire timespan.
The narrative begins in 1952 when Kya Clark, the youngest of five children, watches her mother leave their home in the marshes and never return. Each of her siblings depart soon after, leaving her alone with her alcoholic and often absent father. At only seven years old, Kya is left to fend mostly for herself, only ever attending one day of school due to suffering harassment at the hands of others.
Kya’s father eventually leaves too, and she becomes known as the Marsh Girl, travelling by boat and having a physical connection with her surroundings. As she devotes her solitary life to the natural landscape, she meets an older boy named Tate who teaches her to read and shares an interest in the marshes and their ecosystem. It brings them close, until Tate is offered a scholarship and has to leave.
Fast forward to 1969, where the dead body of Chase Andrews is found at the bottom of a tower by two young boys. Despite a lack of physical evidence, the police and the sheriff suspect murder, and the attention soon falls on Kya, who is nowhere to be found. To add to the mystery, it soon emerges that Kya and Chase knew each other better than anyone in the community could have believed.
As each page turned I grew steadily more invested in Kya’s story, which made for such captivating reading, primarily for her relationships with other characters as well as the world around her. As the plot gradually unravels, the answers to the questions posed in the future timeline eventually come to the surface, making it tantalising to read on and find out what happened in the lead-up to Chase’s death.
When these answers do arrive, they come with an intelligence that left me grasping for more information. By the time I reached the end, it felt like I had been completely absorbed by the book and was just preparing myself to step away, but there are even more surprises to be had. The ending is unexpected; a final twist in the tale that provides cause for fervent speculation.
In several ways, this is a coming of age story. You are guided through every significant step of Kya’s life as she develops remarkably, but remains essentially the same person. Her lonesomeness is conveyed perfectly and the reality of seeing nearly everyone she cares about leave her behind was so affecting and often touched a nerve with me.
Kya is an extraordinary character, unlike any I have come across before. I developed a very strong connection with her, although even to the end she still retains a degree of mystery. All of the other characters were brilliantly written, too. I particularly liked Jumpin’, Mabel, and Tate, who were extremely likeable and caring, while Chase was an accurate depiction of the attitudes of others towards Kya.
The writing was also a joy to behold. I loved the way the natural world and biology played such an important role, and how it was used to personify some of the events within the book. There was a sprinkling of inventive similes, and on the whole I was impressed with how this use of emphasis wove many powerful sentences together.
Told entirely in the third person, the writing is concise and not a word is wasted. There is also some poetry interspersed across the narrative, which at first seemed simply to add more meaning to a particular scene, but there is a surprise about this waiting at the end, too. Everywhere I went with this book, there was wonderful storytelling.
Overall, this was an original and unforgettable read that shall stay with me for a long time to come. It delivers on near enough every level, from the enriching portrayal of nature to the stunning characterisation of Kya. It is a truly special book, the likes of which you only come across once in a long while, and without a shadow of a doubt, it is one that belongs on my all-time favourites list.
Although I would not describe the book as particularly graphic, there are some potential triggers that occur from time to time. There are depictions of alcoholism and domestic violence, along with sexual content, one scene of attempted rape, and a couple of instances of racist language due to the historical context.
If any of these things might cause a negative reaction, then you may decide to skip this book.
Delia Owens has had a long career as a biological scientist, and is the co-author of three bestselling non-fiction books as well as being published in numerous journals including Nature.
Currently living in Idaho, she continues to support the people and wildlife of Zambia through her activism. Where The Crawdads Sing is her first novel, and it has become a bestseller, earning nominations for several awards.
Quite simply stunning. There are many more things I could have said in my review, but I just could not find words to accurately describe its excellence. This book blew my mind, and I will be very surprised if I was to read a better one in 2020.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐