A marsh isn’t the same thing as a swamp, this book isn’t the same thing as a normal murder mystery.
“Crawdad” is a weird word isn’t it? It’s an animal, apparently – like a crayfish(?). I found it difficult to stick the word in my brain. For weeks, while my girlfriend read this novel, I asked her what “Where the Craw-wah-ah sings” was like. As it turned out, Where the Crawdads Sing is very good.
The novel is set in a small town on the shore of North Carolina. When a young man is found murdered, the locals’ attention turns towards “The Marsh Girl”. However, it’s not hard to see that Kya Clark, surviving alone in the marsh from childhood, may be more of a victim than a criminal.
I’ve seen Crawdads recommended alongside Tara Westover’s brilliant Educated (review here) – and I can see why. Like Educated, the protagonist is a young woman growing up without education, neglected and then abandoned by her family, who is fighting to overcome adolescent years characterised by violence and sadness.
Other comparisons also came to mind when reading this book. The physical setting of the marsh is reminiscent of the TV show Bloodline (starring Kyle Chandler). At least, in my mind – I am sure a geographer or biologist would point out that the marshes of North Carolina and the Florida Keys are very different.
Some of the small-town themes also brought to mind Friday Night Lights (also starring Kyle Chandler), one of my favourite TV shows. Basically, if Kyle Chandler isn’t cast in the film Reese Witherspoon’s production company apparently immediately put into motion, I am going to be mighty upset.
What unites all of these shows and books is remoteness – which puts them in my mental genre of “lost America”. By which I mean, an America that is off the grid, where communities are small and have a law unto themselves (or a lack of law altogether). Living in a large, metropolitan, European city myself – this small-town America is mythical – attractive for its freedom, and frightening in its lawlessness.
Stories set in small towns are interesting because they are a microcosm of wider society. Every aspect of human nature is put under a microscope, so you can more clearly see the power structures, and what drives them – class, gender, race, sex, popularity. All of these are explored in Crawdads from the point of view of an outsider – Kya, the marsh girl.
Owens, a zoologist and novelist, parallels human behaviour with the ecosystem of the marsh (which is apparently different to a swamp) to brilliant effect. Her knowledge and passion for nature writing shine through and passages and the nature motif feeds this overwhelmingly human story.
“Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky. Slow moving creeks wander, carrying the orb of the sun with them to the sea, and long-legged birds move with unexpected grace – as though not built to fly – against the roar of a thousand snow geese.”
When it comes to classifying the genre of the novel itself, it’s taxonomy is difficult to determine (biology puns). While billed as a murder mystery, Crawdads could equally be described as a romance, it becomes a court room drama at one point, and also contains a more-than-ordinary amount of poetry.
This book is to a run of the mill murder mystery as to what marsh is to swamp – far superior. I’d be surprised if it didn’t make it into my top books of the year.
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