This is a beautiful though heartbreaking novel, packed with exquisite descriptive prose as it tells a shocking story of abandonment, neglect, survival, awakening and finally hope, and all woven around a murder mystery set in marshlands on the outskirts of a North Carolina coastal town during the 1950s and 60s.
Kya is a shy, skinny six year-old when her mother suddenly up and leaves home - a tiny shack housing a handful of kids, a drunken husband and not much else. Within a few short months, all of Kya’s siblings have deserted her too, until it’s only this innocent little mite and her cold-hearted pa left - and even he’s only there intermittently when alcohol isn’t addling his brain and makin’ him ornery.
For several years, Kya has to fight to survive on grits, a few mussels and not much else as she ekes out a living from the swamp she calls home.
The novel’s pages are riddled with racial tensions and those age-old discrimations simmering between the rich and affluent and that ‘poor white trash’, while bringing to life a story about a young child surviving on next to nothing while harbouring an endless expectation that things will someday get better.
Delia Owens’ characters were all rich and diverse, and each one made me either angry or grateful depending on their role in Kya’s unique and meagre life. Jumpin’ and Mabel brought a glimpse of hope and care into her sad, bleak existence, so much so, I wanted to climb inside the pages to offer them my thanks for seeing a need and doing their best to meet it.
Then there was Tate - I fell in love with this young man right from his first entrance into Kya’s lonely world, despite his choice once he went away to college. A young man who was such a warm light in her personal darkness, and showed a kind and generous heart towards a neglected though resilient young child. Somehow he saw beyond this scruffy waif with nature as her only company - one who knew it’s intricacies better than most - and yet, as a teenager, still had no inkling as to what came after the number twenty-nine. Tate was a true example of being raised by caring parents who taught him to practice kindness, and most especially in one particular portion when Kya was coming of age. I wanted to give him a hug for his sensitivity and concern. He was the kind of friend everyone needs, especially a lonely young outcast.
This was a book I didn’t want to end, although many times my heart ached for this precious little child/young woman alone in that desolate place. It is a heart-wrenching story, yet it’s also peppered with uplifting little nuggets just when you feel your heart breaking into tiny fragments from another of life’s bitter blows falling upon Kya’s scrawny shoulders.
The author’s word pictures were exquisite and my soul eagerly gathered up all of those vivid images she made, like this one....
“She laughed for his sake, something she had never done. Giving away another piece of herself just to have someone else.“
And then there was this longer more poignant piece that had me wishing I was there to eavesdrop and watch everything from inside the shadowy overhang of a weeping willow...
“Kya leaned closer to him, not enough to touch. But she felt a sensation – almost like the space between their shoulders had shifted. She wondered if [he] felt it. She wanted to lean in closer, just enough so their arms would gently brush together. To touch. And wondered if [he] would notice.
And just at that second, the wind picked up, and thousands upon thousands of yellow sycamore leaves broke from their life-support and strained across the sky. Autumn leaves don’t fall; they fly. They take their time and wander on this, their only chance to soar. Reflecting sunlight, they swirled and sailed and fluttered on the wind drafts ... and the two of them leapt and skipped through curtains of falling leaves, reaching their arms wide, snatching them before they fell to the earth...
As she ran back through them, they caught like gold in her hair ... the leaves rained and danced around them as silently as snow … He lifted a leaf gently from her hair and dropped it to the ground. Her heart beat wildly. Of all the ragged loves she’s known from wayward family, none had felt like this…
And for the first time in her life, her heart was full.” (There are more magnificent word pictures nestled in between those ellipses, but I didn’t want to give everything away from this poignant piece of prose ... hopefully, this little skerrick will make you want to read it all for yourself!)
Another portion that grabbed my heart was, “His eyes were the same as they had been. Faces change with life’s toll, but eyes remain a window to what was, and she could see him there.”
The novel’s title sums up Kya’s raw way of life perfectly as the meaning behind the expression ‘Where the crawdads sing’ is ‘...far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters.’
I take my hat off to the author for writing this both tragic yet moving piece of perfection, and highly recommend it to everyone. Definitely a 10/10 from this awe-filled lover of words, and most assuredly one I’ll read over and over as long as I have breath to do so. It actually took far longer than expected to finish, but only because I wanted to savour every morsel - and some portions were read again and again to grasp every hidden facet purely for the gold found in each one.
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