Delia Owens crafts a genrebusting debut novel. It’s primarily a Bildungsroman—coming of age story. But Owens throws in elements of romance, adds a treatise on nature, plus a strong mystery and courtroom procedural.
Her main character Kathryn Danielle Clark, nicknamed Kya by her family, lives in a shack deep in coastal North Carolina marshland. As the story begins, Kya’s mother leaves the small family. Her siblings have already left. Kya is the youngest, at just six, and becomes wholly responsible for herself. While Kya’s father is somewhat present for a few years, he is more often gone or drunk.
Because Kya hasn’t ever been a part of the nearest town, called Barkley Cove, no one cares that she is alone. Plus, the townspeople have deep biases against the so-called “marsh people” or “white trash.” A few kind souls reach out to Kya, but primarily she learns to take care of herself.
Owens mixes the earlier timeline with one just over a decade later. She shifts back and forth with the ease of the tide going in and out. The earlier story is Kya coming of age, shy and awkward. The later story is the mystery.
Town golden boy, Chase Andrews, has died. He appears to have fallen from a tall tower deep in the marshes. But law enforcement is suspicious because the scene has no footprints or fingerprints. They pursue the case and try to add up elements of the supposed crime. One element becomes Kya’s role—or potential role—in the event.
Owens keeps her readers mostly in the dark, which also means too much discussion here would become a spoiler. She tells about some events only Chase and Kya experienced, which leaves room for a twist that I’ll admit I saw coming.
I don’t normally talk extensively about a book’s themes. But Owens created a story that rife with strong themes and undercurrents. Kya’s experience is thoroughly touched with a sense of being “other.” She’s the consummate outsider, and yet makes her way in the world. This is a survival story that truly values the uniqueness of its main character.
Kya’s status as an outsider is only partly her choice. Much of it is also due to intentional prejudices and judgement from the folks of Barkley Cove. It’s hard not to be angry with them for the continual nasty treatment of this innocent young girl. She is both victim and victor, in the sense that she doesn’t succumb to the shame she feels. But it’s an intense struggle, and Owens portrays the inner workings of Kya’s emotions effectively.
Nature is Kya’s safe place, where she finds comfort and solitude. Owens writes a love letter to the marsh, taking us deep into its world of creatures, water, insects, and plants. Whenever Kya runs up against unhappiness, she retreats to the marsh. And yet, it’s also her place of aching loneliness and truest love.
Sometimes a bestselling book doesn’t live up to the hype. For me, this one did. It’s nuanced and meaningful. And the audiobook narration by Cassandra Campbell is excellent. I’m so glad my IRL book group chose it this month. I can’t wait to discuss it!
I do have a couple of issues with it, though. Owens requires her readers to have a healthy suspension of disbelief. The fact that no one would ever come for Kya in the marsh is just hard to imagine. But that’s what this story requires, so be aware.
As for the courtroom procedural, I was flabbergasted by the utterly inept prosecution. Does that man never even watch Law and Order, much less attend law school? He creates a case full of circumstantial evidence, with nary a concrete fact. Again, I found that improbable.
Also, I am beyond tired of men taking advantage of women—in fiction as in reality. No matter how much I cheer for this particular woman, my heart still breaks underneath that she even has to overcome this. Owens doesn’t create many likable male characters in this novel. If that kind of story disturbs you, please use appropriate self care or read it when you’re in a strong place.
All that said, Crawdads is one of my favorite fiction books so far this year. I’m anxious for Owens to publish again.