In her mega-bestselling novel, Delia Owens commits the perfect murder to print. So perfect is the crime that the reader, right up until the last few paragraphs, is unsure if there was a murder at all, though there is definitely a dead body. Set in the 1960s South, the plot shapeshifts with flashbacks breaking up the present-day narrative. The story proceeds unevenly, making it difficult to remember when and how key events occurred. It could be said, as surely the author intended, that the plot ebbs and flows like the water of the marsh where the story takes place. Facts that seem clear by day are softened with the pitch of night and washed from shore by dawn. That is the intriguing world of Where the Crawdads Sing: uncertain and undetermined, under the rule of harsh and beautiful nature, where things are never quite as they seem and survival at times demands violence, or, as the main character remarks, “inventive ways to endure, against all odds.” It is a world of cruel abandonment and predictable prejudice in which a misfit known as “the Marsh Girl” endures and then grows old following acquittal on murder charges brought against her as a young woman.
With more than 15 million books sold and a movie released this past summer, Where the Crawdads Sing has a large and devoted following. You may be familiar with the plot, but, spoiler alert, I outline it here. The story follows the childhood and coming of age of Kya, the youngest of four children being raised in the marshlands of coastal North Carolina by warring and inept parents. By the time she is seven, her mother and siblings have one after another fled home, leaving Kya to live alone with an abusive father in a ramshackle cottage deep in the marsh. Isolated by dense vegetation as well as an animus most townspeople harbor toward marsh dwellers, Kya, who doesn’t go to school, learns how to fend for herself, mostly staying out of her father’s way, except when helping him harvest mussels, a skill she uses to support herself when he, too, abandons her.
As she gets older, Tate, a childhood friend of one of her brothers, teaches Kya to read and schools her in biology. (Already a gifted illustrator, Kya will later become the author of several popular books chronicling marsh life.) She and Tate fall in love just before he leaves for college and breaks her heart. Several years later, she and Chase, the thuggish high school football star, become secret lovers before he marries a prominent town woman. He returns to Kya one day to claim her as his hidden mistress. When she refuses, he gives her a black eye and tries to rape her before she fights him off, shouting that if he touched her again, she would kill him. When Chase is found dead at the bottom of an abandoned fire tower, the victim of an accident or malevolence, Kya is arrested for murder. But the prosecution, relying on circumstantial evidence, fails to make its case and she is acquitted. Kya and Tate, now a marine biologist working close to town, renew their love for each other and live together in Kya’s now renovated cottage. When Kya dies quietly in her marsh boat of heart failure at age 64, Tate finds among her belongings a clue that convinces him she killed Chase in revenge for his assault on her and out of fear for her life. He destroys the evidence of her guilt, apparently without a second thought of the import of his discovery.
Yes, the story is improbable, yet the author keeps the suspense going by meting out details and shifting timeframes from chapter to chapter. This is Owens’ first novel, but she has won awards as a nature writer, and her gift of description pulls the plot along. But she is less adept at exploring the human condition, which she presents mostly as an extension of nature. There is something unhealthy in the way she twice describes, in intimate detail, Kya watching female insects attract male suitors only to devour them as they engage. These mortal incidents are clearly meant to be instructive for Kya—and for us. But we are more than creatures from the swamp—or the more ordered marsh—even when we fall short of our higher calling. The author knows this. Still, God is wholly absent in the world of her novel; religion is presented merely as a hypocritical practice that allows some folks to feel morally superior to others. Indeed, there is scant morality in the story at all. One wonders what sort of character Kya really would be if, as Tate concludes, she lured Chase to the top of the tower, pushed him to his death, and then erased all clues of her presence. She pled not guilty at court and said nothing of the case to Tate for the next 40 years of their life together. Was she a moral monster, or maybe an amoral sociopath unable to sympathize with the suffering of others? Not as she is drawn by Delia Owens, who asks the reader to embrace Kya as someone who has lived life according to her own lights, in the purity of the marsh, in the innocent, non-judgmental space of nature.
In the book’s Prologue, Owens seems to mimic the Genesis story: “Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky. . . . Swamp water is still and dark, having swallowed the light in its muddy throat.” This is her version of Eden and evil, a paradise of light shadowed by dark, encroaching forces. As heroine of the tale, Kya lives and dies in the land of light. But the author fails to address the moral weight of Kya’s choices and actions, which move the character in the direction of Eve. Haunted by the fear that Chase would one day really harm her—something the townspeople would never believe of him—she takes matters into her own hands, committing an act of premeditated, cold-blooded murder. In doing so she abandons the teeming life of the marsh for the darker depths of the swamp, where the crawdads don’t sing, and there is scant air or support for the soul.