Where the Crawdads Sing
By Delia Owens
370 pp. Putnam. $26.
This is the kind of book beloved by those who don’t read many books, the kind heralded as great “literature” by those whose typical reading material is adorned with the knotted abdominal muscles of shirtless men clutching ecstatic, open mouthed females.
Is that overly harsh? Does my tone come off as condescending?
But frankly, this book and its most fervent fans deserve it.
Despite all that, there were times when I was reading this that I actually liked it. At least, I didn’t dislike it enough to stop reading.
But then I read more and I liked it less.
And then more.
And then I started detesting it.
There are moments in all books where I think about what I’ll write in my review. Initially I was interested enough by the setting that my mind only turned towards these things during the chapter headings. Then, even before the book veers into overtly “To Kill A Mockingbird” territory, I found myself thinking about them between paragraphs. Between sentences.
And then I read the next to last page with its rather absurd, totally unnecessary “twist”.
This is a book, read without any audio accompaniment, and yet on the next to last page you can’t NOT hear it, the self-satisfied shout of the author exclaiming “HA!” and “aren’t I clever?” and “look at how I managed to sneak the book’s title in AGAIN, this time in the book’s closing line!”
You can also hear the loud riiiiip of the check being taken out and handed over in exchange for the film rights, signed by Reese Witherspoon’s production company.
SPOILER ALERT < The twist is that Kya, the book’s main character, actually DID murder the man she’s accused of murdering, ex-lover “Chase”. What’s so absurd about that? Only that the book’s last 100 pages deal with the murder trial in which the defense’s case rests on the fact that there is no way Kya could have committed the crime because her doing so would have been pretty much impossible. > SPOILER ALERT
During this “trial” part of the book, I was continually shaking my head in amazement that the case against Kya had even managed to find its way to court in the first place … it was so absurdly far-fetched! And yet come to the end we find that she actually DID do it? What??? Of course we’re told the entire time that the jury is going to convict Kya anyway as they’re prejudiced against her because she’s “different”. Except they then acquit her. Riiiight. Yeah, none of it really adds up.
Or did Owens really invent her twist at all? Discover, as I did, this Slate article detailing how the author, her then-husband, and her stepson apparently, while living in the African country of Zambia, killed men who, like the fictional Chase Andrews, they deemed deserved death (in this case, African poachers).
Now, there is no love lost between me and poachers, and despite the fact that dire economic circumstances likely drive the majority of African poachers, like Somali pirates, to do what they do, I am firmly in the elephants’ corner. Nevertheless the idea of forming essentially a small militia to hunt down and murder poachers raises interesting moral questions, questions that would have made for a FAR better book than this one.
Because this isn’t a good book. Not even close. Other reviewers have pointed out that author Delia Owens writes very nicely about nature and that’s true, but about people and courtrooms and relationships and pretty much everything else she does not. The trial scenes, as I mentioned earlier, come off as third-rate Harper Lee, complete with rambling “you accuse her because she’s different!” monologues.
My hardcover edition of my book runs to 368 pages and at least a third of those pages could have been removed because of how repetitive it is. Everything is compared to “the marsh”, whether that’s human mating habits or the roles played by participants in the courtroom. By the thirtieth time something is compared to a seagull or a seashell or seagrass you just want to scream “Enough! I get the similarities!”
Kya loves to espouse on her loneliness. She’s only happy in the marsh when she’s with her swamp things but the entire time in the marsh she’s whining about how sad and lonely she is. Oh, and this person abandoned me, and that person abandoned me, and — “hey! you’re back now but don’t think I forgot when you abandoned me on page 58!”
Kya, for my money, is the dumbest, worst written female character to appear since Dora in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. When she doesn’t speak her mind is full of childish blither about nature as though she’s some sort of mentally scrambled David Attenborough. When she does speak it’s to whine about her abandonment issues. She’s also a genius who knows everything there is to know about the marsh and the animals that live in it. Similarly her knowledge of biology, gleaned from old textbooks and unreturned library books, would put Richard Dawkins to shame.
Oh, and she is of course, like all terribly written female characters, beautiful, something far too many lines are devoted to making us aware of this.
Worst of all, there’s poetry.
At an ever increasing rate.
“Love must be free to wander,
To land upon its chosen shore
“A broken heart cannot fly,
But who decides the time to die?”
We’re clued in that one of these gems is about to be recited when “Kya recalled an Amanda Hamilton poem” and “Kya recalled a poem written by a lesser-known poet, Amanda Hamilton, published recently in the local newspaper she’d bought at the Piggly Wiggly” appear on the page. Kya is “recalling” poems by this Amanda Hamilton person at a degree that makes you wonder who the fuck this person is because clearly it’s important that all these recalled poems belong to this one author.
Tate, Kya’s true love and boy who abandoned her, as she’ll remind him 50 times, when he left the marsh to run off to college, finds one of “Amanda Hamilton”‘s poems among Kya’s things on one of the last pages of the book. I’m going to include that exchange below, because it’s a beaut! Albeit, a beaut that also contains a little spoiler that you might have already seen coming, so beware.
“Tate had thought Hamilton’s poems rather weak,” no kidding! “but Kya had always saved the published clippings, and here were envelopes full of them. Some of the written pages were completed poems, but most of them were unfinished, with lines crossed out and some words rewritten in the margins in the poet’s handwriting — Kya’s handwriting.
Amanda Hamilton was Kya. Kya was the poet. Tate’s face grimaced in disbelief.”
So did mine when I read that. You’re telling me that aside from writing multiple award-winning books about the marsh and seashells and all that, and knowing more than a PhD would know about biology having read only old textbooks, Kya is also a “local poet who had published simple verses in regional magazines”? Wow!! Another great twist!
I’m sorry. I don’t usually deploy this much sarcasm. It’s off-putting, isn’t it? Insulting to one’s intelligence? Annoyingly self-righteous?
Now you know what it feels like to read this book.