Delia Owens’ debut novel, Where the Crawdads Sing, baffled publishers and book analysts alike when its initial success in 2018 in no way diminished over the course of 2019 and 2020. Reflecting on its ongoing popularity, Jaci Updike, President of Sales for Penguin Random House, claimed that she had ‘never seen anything like this in 30 years’, while Peter Hildick-Smith, the President of the Codex Group, a book audience research firm, ruled that the novel had ‘defied the new laws of gravity’. Crawdads recently reached the huge milestone of 10 million copies sold worldwide and Business Insider named it The Defining Book of the Decade. Although it has just come off of The New York Times Best Sellers list after over 125 weeks, its anticipated film adaptation will likely further ignite interest.
So, what is it about this book that has led it to garner such unprecedented acclaim? On the surface, it merely tracks the lonely life of Kya Clark, as she grows up as a social outcast in the marshes of North Carolina. After her siblings and mother are forced to leave their shack due to Kya’s father’s abusive behaviour, eventually he, too, deserts her. Kya is left to survive in the wilderness as her loneliness ‘[grows] roots inside her and [presses] against her chest.’ Yet, robbed of human interaction and a formal education, Kya is taught about the world through the enriching language of the marsh. Indeed, it is by virtue of her magnificent descriptions of the natural environment and its effects on Kya that Owens is able to rework and reinvigorate the coming-of-age novel to create such a touching and innovative tale.
Having worked as a wildlife biologist for many decades and been encouraged by her mother to ‘Go way out yonder where the crawdads sing’ from a young age, Owens effortlessly entwines ethology, the study of animal behaviour, with 1950s’ and 60s’ society. Whilst half of the book centres around Kya’s adolescence, these chapters are interspersed with an investigation into the murder of Chase Andrews, a town favourite. The ostensibly disparate subjects of the natural world and human behaviour are married together by Owens, forcing us to explore the primal foundations of our actions. Similarly, through Kya’s lens, we see human actions from a natural perspective, learning, as if for the first time, about the pack behaviours and the ways in which males present themselves to get female attention for the purpose of mating. The characters who embrace Kya’s boldly primitive lifestyle are the ones who form the most moving relationships with her, and the love story that unfolds between her and her brother’s former friend, Tate, feels wholly organic because it is rooted in nature.
Owens not only explores the similarities between the natural world and society, but also their crucial and fundamental differences. While the seabirds become almost like family to Kya, she is ostracised by the townspeople and branded the ‘Marsh Girl’, as rumours circulate about her ‘wild behaviour’ and sexuality. Owens also touches on the racial discrimination of 1950s’ and 60s’ North Carolina as some of Kya’s only friends, Jumpin’ and Mabel, are forced to live in a separate town from ‘white society’ because of the colour of their skin. By departing from natural allusions when describing these events, Owens demonstrates that there is nothing innate about the townspeople’s behaviour; these prejudices are man-made.
However, despite its renown and focus on important issues, Crawdads is certainly not perfect. The artistic license Owens takes in developing Kya’s literacy and speaking skills is more than somewhat jarring. It is clear that the writer intends to stress how Kya’s language matures thanks to textbooks and tutelage from Tate. But the notion that she is quickly able to use complex phrases in contrast to the dialect-infused speech of the townspeople sits awkwardly with the reality of her unconventional upbringing. Moreover, certain revelations in the plot appear either largely unrealistic or cliché and the random bursts of poetry are not suitably justified by the end of the novel. Yet, the fact that this is Owens’ first foray into fiction makes her mostly idiosyncratic narrative voice hugely impressive. The task of transforming mud and murky waters into something appealing is no easy feat but she prompts even her most urbanite readers to crave the wet sands and painted skies of Kya’s marsh.
Mark Lawson, Guardian critic, wrote in 2019 that ‘somewhere in the stage schools now are the actors who, playing the young and older Kya, should have a shot at Oscars.’ He wasn’t far off. Daisy Edgar-Jones, who shot to fame thanks to her role as Marianne in Normal People (2020), has signed on to the film adaptation of the book, alongside up and coming actors Taylor John Smith and Harris Dickinson. The film promises to be successful, with Olivia Newman taking on her second large directorial role after her debut feature film, First Match (2018), was very well-received. Alongside her will be Reese Witherspoon and Lauren Levy Neustadter as producers, the former of whom helped to bring worldwide attention to the novel when her book club picked it up in 2018. Perhaps most exciting, though, is the fact that the film will be written by Lucy Alibar. One of the screenwriters of Beasts of the Southern Wind (2012), Alibar appears more than capable of taking up Owens’ mantle after Beasts, which explores similar themes to those of Crawdads, earned her several screenwriting awards.
Though I have high hopes for the film, I urge everyone to read Crawdads in its original novel form. Whilst it superficially hinges on loneliness, this makes fleeting moments of community, family and love all the more poignant. Furthermore, the way in which nature permeates the narrative is perhaps the writer’s greatest triumph. It is through the constant reminder of the relationship between humanity and the natural world that Owens powerfully challenges us to rethink our prejudices, renegotiate our relationships with the outcasts of our communities and reflect on the overlooked importance of the most rudimentary aspects of life.