Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is the author's first foray into fiction writing. Astonishing to have such a huge success on your first attempt, although I gather Owens has written several non-fiction travel type books and I think that shows. Anyway, the book.
The story opens with the discovery of a body at the bottom of a local watch-tower. It's Chase Andrews, the son of a local wealthy family. Has he fallen from the tower accidently or was he pushed? It's not long before people have decided that The Marsh Girl killed him.
Catherine Clark, otherwise known as Kya, is the youngest of six children who live with their parents in the marshlands of coastal North Carolina. The parents' marriage is an abusive one, both physical violence and mental is inflicted on the mother and often on the children as well. To the point where eventually the mother walks out. The older children have already gone, leaving two with the father, Kya and her older brother, Jodie. Before long he hops it too and Kya is left alone with her alcoholic, abusive father. She quickly learns how to keep out of his way using the marsh as her hiding place.
Then one day he is gone too. Kya, aged nine or ten, is left alone. The authorities make a half-hearted attempt to get her to school but the girl is too clever for them. And thus begins Kya's life, living alone in the marshes, surviving by selling shell-fish for money for necessities, relying on help from the black population of the local village. To the white inhabitants she's known as The Marsh Girl, dirty, tainted, a child to keep your own children well away from.
Two men become a major part of Kya's life. Tate, the son of a widower fisherman and Chase Andrews from a wealthy family. Tate teaches Kya to read and shares the wonders of the marsh wildlife with her. They're both experts but it's really only Tate who will be able to make the most of this. Chase is another case altogether and comes into her life as Tate is leaving it. Kya has no idea of his reputation in the nearby town, cut off as she is from civilisation, but he is the one who will have the most impact on her future life in ways she cannot even imagine.
So, a hugely hyped book from three or four years ago. My daughter lent it to me otherwise I probably would not have bothered unless I'd spotted it in the library. First I should say that I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads, if I could've given it 3.5 then I probably would have done. It's was immensely readable, the setting was gorgeous, we've driven across that area so I had some idea of what it's like. I mean 'really' I can see exactly why so many people loved this book... although there are plenty on Goodreads who don't I notice.
CAUTION - SPOILERS! (I mean it!)
Once I got into the book I found it compulsive reading even though the story was driving me a bit crazy. I wanted to slap the men in it and then had to keep reminding myself that this was set mainly in the 1950s and 60s when attitudes were very different. Although thinking about it, perhaps things have not changed that much in that department. But the main thing I found so unbelievable was how the children's mother could walk out and leave two vulnerable children with a monster. Given how much she clearly loved them (Kya has some lovely memories of family times together) would she do that? And then just write one letter, surely knowing the father would destroy it, and then no more attempts at contact? I just could not buy that at all and it rather spoilt the book for me.
My heart bled for Kya, a girl whom everyone left and she knew it. Whether she could've helped herself a bit more by not being so reclusive is open to debate. Lots of it. It's easy to see why she was permanently frightened of people though. Her vulnerability leaps off the page at the reader and when she's accused of murdering Chase Andrews it seems like persecuting this woman has become a spectator sport with local people. It feels shameful and is.
The story is told by hopping back and forth in years. I did find that slightly distracting having to constantly remind myself how old Kya was in that year, although sometimes we were told. I'm not at all keen on courtroom dramas so did not enjoy that long section towards the end. Hence the 3.5 intention on Goodreads. I will not say that I did not enjoy the book because it's not true. The setting, the concentration on local flora and fauna, the descriptions of the marshes, were all superb. I just couldn't buy some of the plot... the mother's behaviour, Tate's behaviour, the manner in which Kya was accused of murder on very circumstancial evidence. Too much of the book was questionable... for 'me' anyway. Your mileage may vary as they say and I hope it does. It's a good book, just for me, not a 'great' one.