“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… . Then within the marsh…true swamp crawls into low-lying bogs, hidden in clammy forests. Swamp water is still and dark, having swallowed the light in its muddy throat. … A swamp knows all about death, and doesn’t necessarily define it as a tragedy, certainly not a sin.”
The book starts with the discovery of a body in the swamp, the body of Chase Andrews, an arrogant womanizer. But this is more than a murder mystery. It is the story of a girl who grows up in the coastal marshes of North Carolina, a place where people move to when they are running away from something, often the law. The town’s people look down on the marsh folk and treat them like trash.
Kya lives with her family in the marsh. Her father is abusive, and her siblings get away as soon as they can. But Kya suffers the biggest blow when her mother walks out without a backward glance, leaving her alone with her brother Jodie and her father. Eventually Jodie follows his siblings and her father dies. The only people Kya has now are an old black man known as Jumpin’, who runs a store by the water, and his wife. They become her friends and parent figures.
Then two men come into her life and change it. Although Kya is illiterate—her one foray to school was a disaster—her knowledge of the marsh is encyclopaedic. Jodie’s friend, Tate, recognizes her innate intelligence and teaches her to read. They fall in love, but after Tate leaves for university, she doesn’t see him again.
Meanwhile, there have been rumours in town about a wild woman living in the swamp and the young men compete to see who will take her first. Chase Andrews starts visiting her and becomes her lover. He promises to marry her but has no intention of seeing it through.
Then one day Chase ends up dead in the swamp, and Kya is accused of murdering him. But did she do it?
Kya is a wonderful creation—talented, strong-willed and independent. The book is seen through her point of view. Even during the trial where her life is at stake, she can’t help observing the way the principal players reveal their status:
“The judge, obviously the alpha male, was secure in his position, so his posture was imposing, but relaxed and unthreatened as the territorial boar. Tom Milton [the defence attorney], too, exerted confidence and rank with easy movements and stance. A powerful buck, acknowledged as such. The prosecutor, on the other hand, relied on wide, bright ties and broad-shouldered suit jackets to enhance his status. He threw his weight by flinging his arms or raising his voice.”
But Kya is not the only one at the heart of Where the Crawdads Sing: the marsh is a character in its own right. Delia Owens obviously knows and loves the marshlands and her love comes through in this book. There is a vivid, magical quality about them—when the scene shifts to the town, it feels like the colours fade. Owens not only tells a fascinating tale but shines a light on the beauty and the sheer diversity of creatures that live in this relatively unknown habitat. I enjoyed the story but what made this book stand out for me was the lyrical description of the marshes.