Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Where The Crawdads Sing
has been a runaway bestseller - not long ago it was one of those books which, if anyone had actually been commuting instead of working from home, you'd have suddenly noticed everyone reading on the train. 

Written by Delia Owens, it's a story of poverty, nature and solitude in the swamps of North Carolina. Kya, the protagonist, is the youngest in her shack-dwelling, desperately poor family. One day in 1952 she watches her beloved mother simply walk out of the house never to return, having been driven away for good by her violent, alcoholic husband. Kya's older siblings, unable to face further abuse without their mother there to defend them, gradually start to depart too, until Kya is the only child left, co-existing uneasily with her father for just long enough to learn a little about mussel-fishing and piloting a small boat before he too abandons her.

Completely alone in the isolated swampland shack, Kya is left with no human relationships at all bar occasional conversations with Jumpin', a black shopkeeper who buys her mussels, and his kindly wife, who helps her with gifts of food and second-hand clothes. It soon becomes clear that Kya's most important emotional connection is with the landscape and wildlife around her, as she collects feathers, shells and bones and meticulously draws them. One day, she's spotted by Tate, a local boy from a middle-class town family who shares her fascination with natural history. Once he's gained her trust, Tate sets about teaching Kya to read, and it's this that marks a major turning point in Kya's life. 

However, there are also chapters set in the mid-1960s, where another local boy, called Chase, has been found dead in the marshes. Is his death an accident? What was he doing in the marshes anyway? And did he too have some kind of connection with the mysterious, now adult Marsh Girl Kya Clark? 

Where The Crawdads Sing proceeds at a languorous pace, in keeping with Kya's long, solitary days and with the sluggish heat and humidity of the North Carolina marshes, but somehow doesn't feel like a slow read. The depiction of the landscape is so vividly atmospheric that every time I opened the book to start reading again, I felt as if I'd been picked up and dropped there. It's very easy to become immersed in Kya's world. 

And Kya's world is a strange one. The extreme solitude of the life that she leads, and from such a young age, means she lacks understanding of certain aspects of social interaction. Her inability to read (she's never been sent to school) hinders her for a long time - and then when she does learn, it's a rapidly empowering but intense process that's almost overwhelming. Her formative experiences have been primarily been of abandonment, and she's uneasy when she's out of her own environment. Kya has tremendous potential, but standing no chance of ever being 'normal', will she ever be able to fulfil it? How reliable are Kya's perceptions of people and situations around her? Can she ever fully understand the world beyond the marsh? 

Because Kya's social sphere is so tiny and her interactions with other people so minimal, this is very much her book and the other characters, even the most important ones, feel quite peripheral. That means it can be difficult to engage with them as much as I'd like - but perhaps that mirrors Kya's experience. My only real criticism of Where The Crawdads Sing is that the ending feels compressed to me - a lot seems to change for Kya in a very few pages and that jarred after the considered, unrushed pace of the rest of the book. That said, it was still a satisfactory resolution for me, and Kya and the marshes will stay with me for a long time.