A US best­seller, this de­but about a na­ture-lov­ing girl grow­ing up alone in south­ern swamp­land has wide ap­peal

The Guardian - Review - - Fiction - Mark Law­son

In screen dra­mas, dur­ing a scene of sex or vi­o­lence in a liv­ing room, the cam­era will of­ten slyly re­veal that a David Attenborough wildlife doc­u­men­tary is play­ing un­watched in the cor­ner. The nat­u­ral­ist’s whis­pered ob­ser­va­tions about the tactics of the “male” or “fe­male” com­ment iron­i­cally or omi­nously on the hu­man in­ter­ac­tions.

That trope is spec­tac­u­larly ex­tended in Where the Craw­dads Sing, the de­but novel by Delia Owens, an Amer­i­can wildlife sci­en­tist. It lands in Bri­tain boosted by the cher­ished trin­ity of New York Times best­seller­dom, a fren­zied for­eign sales fight, and a film in de­vel­op­ment by Reese Wither­spoon (her on­line book club picked the novel in Septem­ber last year).

The main sto­ry­line spans – in a date-jum­bling, ten­sion-build­ing or­der –1952 to 1970, fol­low­ing Kya Clark be­tween the ages of six and 25 as she grows up alone in a shack in the swamp­lands of North Carolina after be­ing aban­doned by her fam­ily. She learns from the wildlife around her, gain­ing tricks of cam­ou­flage to evade tru­ant of­fi­cers and ac­quir­ing hunt­ing skills to feed her­self and catch mus­sels and fish to sell to shop­keep­ers in the town be­yond the creek.

As a hu­man who knows only na­ture, all Kya’s ref­er­ence points come from her sur­round­ings – and her cre­ator’s day job. Her ob­ser­va­tion that mother an­i­mals and birds al­ways re­turn to their young leads her poignantly to be­lieve that her child­hood soli­tude will be tem­po­rary. When, as a teenager, she starts to at­tract at­ten­tion from two townie boys, kind work­ing-class Tate and ar­ro­gant posh boy Chase, her dat­ing rit­u­als are drawn from ob­serv­ing the sex life of fire­flies. She also, cru­cially, ob­serves the dan­gers of pre­da­tion in the wild.

Among the many mod­ern phe­nom­ena of which iso­lated Kya has no inkling is the vast pop­u­lar­ity of crime fic­tion. But Owens knows the tricks of the genre, be­gin­ning the novel with a pro­logue set in 1969 in which a young man has died sus­pi­ciously in the swamp. The rest of the book cuts be­tween the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, in which big­oted wit­nesses in­crim­i­nate the “swamp girl”, and flash­backs to Kya’s youth and young adult­hood, as lo­cal sus­pi­cion grows that makes the white peo­ple dis­like her by Delia Owens, Cor­sair, £14.99 al­most as much as they do the res­i­dents of the area known, in the prej­u­diced term of the time, as Colored Town.

Ap­pre­ci­at­ing the fic­tional lim­i­ta­tions of a feral recluse with no vo­cab­u­lary or life skills, Owens pro­vides tu­tors for Kya. As a re­sult, the tone of the cen­tral sec­tion some­times feels like YA, as Kya is in­structed by a wise African Amer­i­can woman (one of the sup­port­ing char­ac­ters who flirt with vir­tu­ous cliche) in the mys­ter­ies of men and men­stru­a­tion.

But soon the nar­ra­tive is sat­is­fy­ingly re­claimed for older adults when at the lo­cal li­brary Kya reads an ar­ti­cle en­ti­tled “Sneaky Fuck­ers” in a sci­ence jour­nal, which de­scribes de­ceit­ful mat­ing strate­gies. These in­clude un­der­sized bull­frogs who hang out with the al­pha males with a view to pick­ing up spare fe­males, and the male dam­sel­fly, to whom God or Dar­win has given a use­ful scoop that re­moves the sperm of a prior im­preg­na­tor to clear the pas­sage for his own.

As with those Attenborough clips in screen fic­tion, these anec­dotes hover as metaphors for the be­hav­iour of males in the story, and will al­low the direc­tor of the even­tual film to have fun with pointed cut­aways. The di­vided time­line – a stan­dard cin­e­matic struc­ture – will also help the screen­writer. And some­where in stage schools now are the ac­tors who, play­ing the young and older Kya, should have a shot at Os­cars.

She is a vivid and orig­i­nal char­ac­ter. At times, her sur­vival in iso­la­tion comes close to su­per­hero­ism, but Owens con­vinc­ingly de­picts the in­stincts and cal­cu­la­tions that get Kya into and out of dif­fi­cul­ties. With­out too much sen­ti­men­tal­ity, there is a strong emo­tional line in her desire to have a “shred of fam­ily”. The po­ten­tial sop­pi­ness of a com­ing-of-age ro­mance is also off­set by the pos­si­bil­ity that Kya is a mur­derer, al­though Owens has stud­ied the big beasts of crime fic­tion suf­fi­ciently to leave room for doubt and sur­prises.

The sto­ry­lines in­volv­ing so­cial com­pe­ti­tion and vi­o­lent death feel like a re­work­ing, from a young fe­male per­spec­tive, of Theodore Dreiser’s clas­sic 1925 melo­drama An Amer­i­can Tragedy . Like Dreiser, Owens com­bines high ten­sion with pre­cise de­tail about how peo­ple dress, sound, live and eat – the case stud­ies in her book are both hu­man and nat­u­ral.

Sur­prise best­sellers are of­ten works that chime with the times. Though set in the 1950s and 60s, Where the Craw­dads Sing is, in its treat­ment of ra­cial and so­cial di­vi­sion and the frag­ile com­plex­i­ties of na­ture, ob­vi­ously rel­e­vant to con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics and ecol­ogy. But these themes will reach a huge au­di­ence though the writer’s old-fash­ioned tal­ents for com­pelling char­ac­ter, plot­ting and land­scape de­scrip­tion.

Mark Law­son’s novel The Al­le­ga­tions is pub­lished by Pi­cador.

Where the Craw­dads Sing

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