I doubt you’ll read a more atmospheric – physically atmospheric – novel this year. This decade, even. Delia Owens’s description of the coastal marshes of North Carolina is pungent, tangible, and utterly immersive. I’d say it makes a wonderful setting for her extraordinary story but the marshes are so much more than a backdrop; the hundreds of miles of winding creeks, boggy forest, lakes and tidal waters form a single, identifiable character in its own right. Dickens would have approved: just as the Kentish marshes form a pivotal role in Great Expectations and a natural habitat for the outcast Magwitch, so the steamy, seamy North Carolina coastal badlands are essential to the plot and feel of Where The Crawdads Sing. One cannot imagine our central character, Kya, living anywhere else.
Kya is, of course, the Marsh Girl; the name locals give this fleeting, mysterious presence at the edge of their conventional lives. Kya is the stuff of legend to the tiny community living just beyond the fringe of the marshes. But of course we, the reader, know all about her; how she came to be living alone in the wetlands, how she survives there, why she was abandoned by her dysfunctional family in the first place (Kya was barely six years old when she began fending entirely for herself). Owens writes enchantingly about Kya’s strange childhood as she grows to become as much at home in her strange surroundings as the shy animals that live there. It is very much a case of adapt or die – and by the time she reaches adolescence, Kya’s adaptation is near-perfect. Marsh Girl indeed.
I think I would have been perfectly happy just to continue reading about Kya’s extraordinary life in the marsh. But of course, a plot ripples through these wonderful pages like a dark, dangerous undertow that threatens to suck Kya under and destroy her.
As Kya moves into her teens, she blossoms into a remarkable beauty. Rumours of her astonishing looks slowly spread into the wider community in the small town at the edge of the marsh, along with absurd gossip: she is a witch; she is a vampire; she is only half-human, the ‘missing link’ between the animal world and our own.
Two young men enter Kya’s life: Tate, and Chase. Chase is, not to put too fine a point on it, an absolute swine. The good-looking sports jock and local hero, he runs a string of girlfriends in town and soon sets his sights on mysterious, beautiful Kya. Tate, on the other hand, is almost too good to be true – handsome, kind, a budding naturalist in love with the beauty of the wild marsh, and, of course, in love with the wild Kya.
Much of this story is told in flashback, which is why we know from the start that Chase comes to a sticky end. But was it murder? And did Kya – who, we learn, has powerful motive – kill him?
Reese Witherspoon says she didn’t want this story to end. Neither did we. So enjoy the journey.