Where The Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens

ISBN-10: 1472154665, Corsair (2019)

Delia Owens’s debut novel is a worldwide phenomenon. Known for her bestselling nonfiction books about her life as a wildlife scientist in Africa, with Where The Crawdads Sing, Owens turns her attention to the North Carolina coast, and fiction.

The story begins in the 1950s, with a destitute family living on marginal marshland and universally despised by their peers. Suddenly abandoned by their mother, six-year-old Kya’s brothers and sisters drift away, leaving her with her drunken and violent father. Intelligent and sensitive, an acute observer and talented artist, Kya develops an uneasy pact with him, taking refuge in the marshland when she needs to escape. Unschooled, she learns her lessons on survival and morality from nature and the wild creatures around her, helped occasionally, not by the worthies of the local church, but by the black community, in particular the owner of the gas and bait shop, Jumpin’ and his wife, Mabel.

Though flawed by poor dialogue, some grim poetry and – it has to be said – a simplistic characterisation of her black friends, this is an interesting book. Owens excels in her descriptions of nature and the depiction of the sounds, light and space of the marsh as the seasons turn is lyrical. There’s enough tension and to keep the pages turning, and a strong and seductive environmental message at the core of the story. Kya’s observations of the changes to her wilderness provide a warning that we walk on a knife-edge, but also hope that we can survive as she survived if we value our threatened habitats and strive to protect and improve our world.

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Margaret’s own 1996 debut – recently relaunched under the new title, Dear Mum – was shortlisted for the First Blood Critics’ award and was a Sunday Times ‘Christmas Cracker’. It’s now available for just 99p.