I started reading this novel to get me out of a reading slump. I had been plagued by a series of books that made me feel very non-committal – so much so that I ended up reading three books at a time, which is something I only rarely do. At the time of writing, Where The Crawdads Sing has been on the New York Times Bestseller list for 119 weeks running. When I posted about it on my Instagram stories, I had at least fifteen people gush to me about it. It seemed like I would be on to a winner.
Delia Owen’s capability of creating such a wild character that is at the same time so understandable and relatable is incredible to me. We watch the main character suffer through loss, embarrassment, harassment, and abandonment all before she turns ten years old, and the way Owen’s sets up the fleetfooted instincts of Kya’s character is very well done. Kya is very much a wild thing, a “Marsh Girl” as she is referred to throughout the book, at one with the marsh and all the creatures who live in it. It’s her obsession with the marsh and her learnings of the creatures who live in it, that ultimately decides her success, but also her downfall. It’s only because she cannot be parted from the marsh that society ostracizes her, but it’s also her obsession with the marsh that allows her to become a published naturalist, and a collector of shells and feathers that are unparalleled throughout the country. She goes from being the most infamous person in the town, to perhaps the most famous person, worthy of note. The small town society does a full 180 – in the beginning, Kya is ostracized because of the marsh, but then later on, she’s celebrated because of the very same thing. It’s also no coincidence that the author is herself an established naturalist.
Kya watches her small-town society from the outside, watching human interactions like a naturalist would watch gulls squabble amongst one another. It’s completely turned on its head, with Kya – the “wild thing” – watching the “sophisticated society” as something other from her. Her acceptance of her being “other” and decidedly different from her Barkley Cove society pushes her further away from it.
We feel for her, and feel us having been done wrong – Delia Owens is exceptional at making us feel like society’s exclusion of Kya is a personal affront to us as readers. We have automatically accepted Kya for who she is, and feel that it is the fault of her small town for not including her, also indirectly encouraging her behaviour as a wild creature.
This is never more true than when she has the terrifying experience of young boys running through the marsh around her house, and banging the front door as an attempt to tag it to prove how grown and brave they are by approaching the haunted marsh girl’s lair, when cowering inside is just a small child, left abandoned and afraid. Who are the savages now?
I didn’t expect to love this book as much as I did, and Kya’s spirit has stayed with me many weeks after I turned the last page. I won’t mention the plot twist that happens in the final pages, but all I will say is it’s simultaneously expected and unexpected, like walking into a table in the middle of the night that you always knew was there.
By the end of this book, I felt that instead of a story about a girl who thrives against all odds, it showed us that underneath everything, we are all just wild creatures, no better or worse than those living in the marsh.