“When man is threatened, many times we resort to behaviours we aren’t necessarily proud of,” Where the Crawdads Sing (Corsair, 2018) author Delia Owens said in a recent interview.

Owens wasn’t talking about herself, of course. With Where the Crawdads Sing selling over 4.5 million copies in the first year of its release, and Reese Witherspoon’s production company quickly snapping up the film rights, the debut novelist has plenty to be proud of. But for her protagonist, Kya, a young girl abandoned by her family in the marshlands of North Carolina, it’s a very different story.

From beginning to end, Kya is subjected to such a never-ending torrent of disasters that the reader shouldn’t be surprised by what happens when she’s pushed to breaking point. But thanks to Owens’s clever plotting, we are anyway.

The story opens in the 1950s, where Kya is the youngest child in a family dominated by an alcoholic father and characterised by the steady departure of those she loves: first her mother and then, one by one, all her siblings.

With no choice but to survive, Kya soon learns to fend for herself on the marsh, immersing herself into the environment and ultimately becoming an amateur scientist. By the time she’s a teenager, she has learned everything there is to know about the flora and fauna that surrounds her. But despite the richness of her self-fashioned life, she never learns to stop craving love. And that’s where the story really begins.

From predatory young men to unsafe boats to thunderous waves, Kya’s isolated existence in the marsh is far from happy. But it is vivid, and that’s where Owens’s magic lies. She conjures the story’s natural environment with such care and reverence that even the most mud-shy of readers will come to appreciate the strange beauty of Kya’s swamp.

Whether that beauty is enough to offset the increasingly tragic storyline, however, is a different question – and one I’ll leave you to answer for yourself.

By Greer Gamble

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