Review by Mary Kat
- Rating: 😻😻😻😻 /5
- Recommend for: Fans of Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, and others who like to immerse themselves in the atmosphere of the Southern coast
A Love Letter to the Marsh
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is a few things simultaneously: a love letter to the marsh from a scientist, an exploration of loneliness, and an argument against prejudice. This is a great choice for an immersive summer read, and it will be sure to leave you longing for the Southern Coast and fantasizing about living among the seagrass, just as Marsh Girl does.
The book is also having a bit of a moment right now. When I tried to borrow this book from the library, I was put on a waitlist — of a few hundred people. And whenever I go on Instagram lately, it seems there’s someone new posting an image of the book cover while they read on a boat or besides their lake (not to be out done, you can see my photo above, next to our local lake). I suppose this moment is propelled by a few different factors: First, Reese Witherspoon, who is herself a force on Instagram, endorsed the book and helped introduce it to younger crowds. Bookstagram has a great way of publicizing books and connecting readers, and although I don’t always love the “book of the moment” it’s fun to have common ground and gives plenty of fodder for discussion.
All The Best
Second, the setting is perfect for a dozy summer read along the shore. The strongest endorsement for this novel is its incredible use of atmosphere and imagery. The novel is set deep in the marsh along the North Carolina coast, and Delia Owens, who is apparently a biologist herself, does not hold back on her imagery of local wildlife and nature. The story feels immersive, and it’s easy to imagine every aspect of the shack and marsh that Kya frequents. Even the southern food is imagined with great passion, and it’s easy to feel part of Kya’s journey and landscape.
SPOILERS AHEAD! Continue at your own risk.
This book also benefits from a memorable cast of characters: Kya “the Marsh Girl”, Jumpin’, Mabel, Tate, Jodie, lawyer Tom Milton, and Sunday Justice (a lovable cat who runs the courthouse and would surely be a favorite among Crazy Cat Lady Reads fans). Owens uses phonetic language to create vibrant dialogue, and it’s very effective towards the overall atmosphere. Owens also uses Kya’s language as a vehicle to show her coming of age, as Kya develops from a heavily accented, slang child to a mature, more polished young adult. Over time, these characterizations really deepened, and I felt like I came to know each of the cast well. Particularly the longer I read, the more invested I became in these characters, and their decisions felt earned — like natural consequences of their personalities.
My favorite scene in the book is the moment of Jodie’s return. After so long without family or an explanation for their disappearance, Jodie returns to the shack to find Kya, now a successful writer but still isolated. There are some gems in this chapter. We learn more about her Pa’s violence, which explains her mother’s departure. We learn about her mother’s life after leaving, which is tragic and anchored around memories of her children (including watercolor paintings, much like Kya’s own). We learn about Jodie’s early friendship with Tate, which helps explain how Tate knew the way to Kya’s shack all those years before. This brother-sister reunion is powerful, and I loved that Kya finally found her family. Overall, the chapter is strong, hits with an emotional punch, and provides satisfying answers to many early questions in the book.
There are some other outstanding scenes in this novel: the story of Kya’s Ma and Pa as teenagers before they were “Ma and Pa”, the court case (particularly lawyer Tom’s slam-dunk conclusion), and the final shocking reveal in the last couple pages. As warned above, big time spoilers coming your way, but I found the big reveal in the last couple pages quite surprising. After the suspenseful trial where Kya is found innocent of the murder of Chase Andrews and after a lifetime growing old with Tate, we finally learn the truth — Kya, drawing on her knowledge of nature as always, acted like a female praying mantis and killed Chase Andrews herself. It’s a shocking twist, and it certainly muddles the waters a bit — were the townsfolk somewhat justified in their avoidance of her then? I agree with the lawyer that she was born of her loneliness and abandonment, but she’s certainly more of a complex character with this final reveal: not a wholly innocent victim, as she led us to believe.
Not My Favorite
Despite my overall warm feelings about the novel, there were times I was frustrated while reading. Although I wrote a ringing endorsement for the imagery, the novel was walking a thin line. The prose sometimes became too purple and even sing-song at points. As I read, the rhythm seemed off on many sentences, which were too heavy with “lyrical prose” to the point of detriment. The plot, in particular, is weighted down by this language. I found this rather distracting, and the story would have benefitted from a lighter hand.
And Kya can be very frustrating — sometimes far too cold, and her dialogue too intellectual, inauthentic, or stilted, to the point of stretching the imagination. When I say intellectual, I use it in the way of the coping mechanism “intellectualization” — as in, she seems rather stoic, and even when reuniting with her family, she rambles off high-level textbook facts instead of expressing emotions. Rather unbelievable dialogue, particularly for a girl with no formal education and one who allegedly longs for human connections. (As an aside, I’ll point out because of my medical background that she would be diagnosed with avoidant personality disorder — one who wants a relationship but fears it, rather than schizoid — one who is alone and likes it that way.)
Finally, the plot was tedious at times, particularly when Kya is in a love triangle between Tate and Chase Andrews. Certainly this is just a matter of opinion, but the romance felt like it took up a disproportionate amount of time, and I would’ve preferred to spend more time elsewhere.
Where the Crawdads Sing is not a perfect novel as some have preached, but it is certainly an impressive debut and an immersive summer read. This novel is especially well-suited for nature enthusiasts, fans of Southern literature, and those who love atmospheric settings with poetic descriptions. And particularly because of the massive buzz surrounding this novel and its future movie, Where the Crawdads Sing is a can’t-miss for avid readers who love bookish conversation.
I’ll conclude this review with a few related recommendations, as this novel reminded me of many others.
- Beasts of the Southern Wild: I was first reminded of the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, a surrealist film about a girl alone with her Pa in the bayou. I wouldn’t be surprised if Where the Crawdads Sing is also destined to become a movie.
- Their Eyes Were Watching God: As for books, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston is a classic literary example of lyrical prose mixed with phonetic dialogue, and Owens builds on that inspiration here.
- Swamplandia!: I’m also reminded of Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, a very weird and rather magical bildungsroman set in Florida. I enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it to fans of Where the Crawdads Sing (and vice versa), but the novel is a bit of a controversial choice among readers, despite its critical acclaim.
- The Water is Wide: Finally, I’m reminded of The Water is Wide by Pat Conroy, a memoir from the famous storyteller about his time teaching on Daufuskie Island, a small island off South Carolina. The similarity here is more in setting than anything else — if you love to read about the Southern coast and experience that atmosphere as much as I do, this is a good one to add to your bookshelf.