When it comes right down to it, my personal schema for whether I enjoyed a book involves two fundamental mechanics. First, do I regret spending time reading it? Secondly, does it stick with me after I’ve finished the final page? Days, weeks or even months? With Delia Owens’ debut Where the Crawdads Sing the answer to both these questions is a decisive “no”, making it a just-fine novel I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. I also wouldn’t go out of my way to rip it out of someone’s hands, either.
Owens takes us into the bayou of rural North Carolina for a good-old-fashioned Bildungsroman spanning twenty years in the life of Catherine “Kya” Clark, known locally in Barkley Cove as “The Marsh Girl.” Abandoned by her family as a child, Kya must learn to live out of their remote shack in complete isolation, save for a few friendly faces in the form of a local dock-owner and a kind boy whose family also lives in the marsh.
The story alternates between Kya’s childhood in the late 50s and her experiences as a young woman in the early 70s, with flashbacks and forwards revolving around a murder mystery that has thrown Barkley Cove into a panic. In the mix, Owens manages to work in a serviceable and occasionally touching romantic subplot, practically a necessity for any pop-fiction coming-of-age tale.
The novel’s atmosphere undoubtedly serves as its shining feature. Having written a number of non-fiction texts about her experiences as a wildlife scientist, Owens clearly has a way with words when it comes to describing the natural world. But atmosphere and ambiance can only carry a 400-page text so far, and in this case, it’s just not far enough. Owens certainly crafts a sympathetic protagonist in Kya, but she relies far too much on “telling” rather than “showing,” perhaps a symptom of the fact that Kya simply does not have many people with whom to chat.
Regardless, the novel’s third-person-omniscient narrator prattles on for far too long while its prepubescent protagonist meanders about the Southern jungle eating grits and wondering why her family left her. The narrator’s lengthy monologue that makes up the story’s first half contains little dialogue to break up the pacing, and ultimately, Kya’s thoughts are spoon-fed to the reader from this distant point of view to the extent that I began to feel isolated from the text myself.
Other gripes I need to get off my chest are as follows: a half-hearted, underwhelming attempt at addressing racism in the South, a series of jarring attempts at titillating romance scenes, trite poetry injected far too frequently for a plot point that doesn’t pay off emotionally, a predictable ending, an out-of-place courtroom drama sequence and the fact the book is roughly fifty pages too long. I’m out of breath. Where the Crawdads Sing is a noble first foray into fiction from Delia Owens that will probably please its target demographic, but I’d suggest waiting for her second attempt.