4 out of 5 stars
I have thoughts upon thoughts about this slow, southern drawl of a book.
Kya, known in her 1950’s – 1970’s backwater North Carolina town as Marsh Girl, lives in an actual shack in the swamp outside town. One day, her mom leaves. Her siblings follow. She manages to become the world’s youngest adult and keep herself and her abusive, alcoholic father alive, until she’s 10, when one night he never comes home. And so Kya figures out how to make a few coins, avoid trouble and the truant officers, and live off the land as an almost wild animal herself. She raises herself in the marsh.
Over time, she makes meets Tate, who’s a few years older and teaches her to read. They have the doomed love affair of teenagers – but it’s all the love Kya has ever received. She grows alone into a beautiful young woman, until another local boy named Chase comes around. This second love affair lasts several years, as naive Kya doesn’t know that Chase is playing her, and set to marry in town. When it ends, Kya thinks to close her world forever.
Then Chase is found dead. And it turns out everyone knew about his secret out there in the marsh.
Kya is an absolute work of character art. She’s alone, and lonely, but never dull. She’s as serene as the marsh, her inner monologue soothing even when confronting trouble. Having had no one else her whole life, Kya is enough on her own for the reader: fascinating, compelling, wild and lovely. As a reader, I felt compelled to protect Kya, as fiercely as she guards her own place and privacy.
Owens’ writing is a masterpiece of its own. The dialogue is blissfully southern, often written phonetically as if the patois of the local people must be heard to be understood. Even the prose has a lilting vernacular, sometimes grammatically questionable, that keeps the story rooted deep in its setting.
Crawdads is also markedly simple. There’s one plot line: Kya’s. Subplots happen outside the pages, and interact with the main story, but the reader is alone with Kya, as she has always been alone. It’s elegant, efficient storytelling, capturing the slow and measured tune of Kya’s world.
Unexpectedly, I could have done without the murder mystery part of the plot. Kya’s life would have been enough. But it serves to modernize the story (Did they rely that heavily on fibers in 1970s forensics?), and signify how the world would eventually encroach on Kya’s existence. It allows for more characters to color the landscape of Barkley Cove, and Owens makes sure that each is indelibly drawn.
Where the Crawdads Sing saves a few surprises for late in its pages. I almost wish it hadn’t. They’re interesting, but not quite worthy of the world written into the rest of this book. Neither Kya, nor I as reader, needed them. She was as she always had been: enough on her own.