Interesting premise let down by poor writing, racist stereotypes, and ill-thought out structure
I started the Reading List series with the claim that I would share some of the books that have been holding my attention. Sadly this is not a claim I can make for Delia Owens’ debut novel. Rarely has so short a book taken me so long to read. Set in the marshlands of North Carolina, it follows the story of ‘Marsh Girl’ Kya, who, abandoned by her family and ostracised by prejudiced locals, grows up alone and isolated in the marsh, developing a keen understanding of the natural world. Alongside this is a ‘murder mystery’ surrounding the death of a popular former quarterback in the local town. It doesn’t take a genius to imagine how these two stories meet up.
Owens is a ‘scientist’ (whatever this means in this context) herself, and has written successful memoirs about her time studying animals in Africa with her husband. I’ll get this out of the way before moving to the novel itself: Owens is a character not without controversy. Read this great piece by Laura Miller for the full story, but to summarise, it seems that her husband may be a murderer. One who considers his actions justifiable (this bears significance in the context of the plot of Crawdads). Her earlier writing also reveals an at best patronising and at worst outright racist attitude towards black people, which rears its ugly head in Crawdads. I wouldn’t be surprised if Owens becomes the subject of the next hit Netflix docu-series; her life certainly offers worthy material.
But let’s get back to the book itself. My main problem is that it is just not well written. I don’t mean it’s not my style, or it’s a ‘light’ read. As I said in my review of Sunshine, sometimes I do like a bit of light reading, so that wouldn’t be a problem for me. I mean just that: it is poorly written, and she is not a good storyteller. A decent editor could have done much by restructuring the novel entirely. It is written in what could charitably be described as a ‘cinematic’ fashion; by which I mean that there are scenes one can imagine playing out on camera. Unsurprisingly given its huge success, Crawdads is going to be turned into a film, and one can’t help but feel that this is what Owens was aiming for, rather than creating a good standalone piece. The usual problem with adaptations is that they are forced to cut elements, to slim the story down to fit it into the new format. Crawdads I think would actually benefit from expansion. There is almost too little to work with. It is simultaneously episodic and repetitive, with both scenes and phrases being repeated almost verbatim at various points in the novel (and not for some sort of interesting literary effect).
Rarely are we told or shown anything until it becomes absolutely relevant. Who needs reincorporation, or foreshadowing? We learn about past events only when they become essential to current ones. There is little world-building, and characters and events appear out of nowhere, despite supposedly having so much significance that it is hard to believe we haven’t heard of them before. To take a relatively minor example: Kya’s lawyer. Owens tries to have an Atticus Finch moment with a wise and eloquent lawyer, who has apparently always thought kindly of Kya, has lived in the town the whole time she has, and has considerable standing in the local community. And yet we hear absolutely nothing about him, not even a passing comment that could have set up his existence.
The whole novel reads as if Owens had decided on points A, B and C of the plot, and didn’t really care about how she got between them. The story is full of points verging on deus ex machina revelations, such as her miraculously finding someone to teach her to read, who conveniently (in a small, rural town in the 50s and 60s) has lots of high-level biology textbooks going spare. Much of the story relies heavily on convenience in this rather awkward fashion.
There is much that stretches credibility in the novel, not least the exceedingly painful dialogue. The idea that a woman who can barely remember words because she so infrequently encounters anyone to share them with will be able to eloquently and argumentatively correct people’s understanding of biology is absurd. One might argue that she is aping the language of her textbooks, and that she gains a level of confidence from her knowledge, but this is so at odds with the rest of her behaviour, and what we are told of her thoughts and feelings, that it is hard to believe this was the intention. Add to this some cringe-worthy attempts at poetry, and I found reading this book a total slog. Things picked up a little in the courtroom scenes, but even these failed to build much excitement. Owens gives herself a convenient get-out from writing actually good speeches by noting that Kya barely heard them, so we don’t need to either, therefore sparing herself the need for eloquence, which she tells us about, rather than demonstrating. Again, she seems far more interested in the end result than in how we get there.
I mentioned that Owens seems to possess questionable views about black people, and we see this in the presentation of Jumpin’ and Mabel, the only black characters. They are presented in awkward eye-dialect, which sets them apart from the other characters, and are little more than saccharine stereotypes. Jumpin’ is the kindly semi-father figure (despite not really behaving as a father to Kya, Owens is keen to tell us that she thinks of him as one), while Mabel is frequently reduced to little more than her ‘bosom’, which never goes without comment. It is either ‘generous’, ‘full’ or ‘cushy’. Mabel never seems to make an appearance without some reference being made to her physical largeness. She is ‘good-sized’, the boards of the wharf swing as if she were a ‘small piano’, and her voice is ‘big’. I was honestly kind of shocked to read such blatant stereotyping in a novel published in 2018, albeit written by a white woman who grew up in 1950s Georgia. If Mabel isn’t written to fulfill the ‘Mammy’ stereotype, I don’t know who is.
But perhaps what bothered me most about these characters was the way Owens tries to draw comparisons between them and Kya. The reality of their lives as black people in North Carolina in the 1950s and 1960s is barely addressed at all, and when it is, it is simply to make us think more about Kya. When they are mistreated, it is so that we consider Kya’s treatment by the locals. I think that maybe what Owens is getting at, even if she doesn’t know it, is that she wants us to be shocked that a skinny white woman is being treated the same way a black people (who she insists on calling ‘coloured’, an unnecessary piece of period accuracy in a novel otherwise unconcerned with historic specificity). Kya sees their mistreatment and finds in it a reason to empathise with them. This is a frankly pathetic way to centre a white woman and her experience in one of the few elements of the novel that could have had something interesting to say about the society Kya lives in. Owens wants us to think that, because Kya is looked down on for her social class (she is referred to by the townspeople as ‘marsh trash’), she endures the same disadvantages as her black neighbours. This is simply not the case. Black people, in this period and beyond, were legally and systemically discriminated against, and faced brutal violence at the hands of their white oppressors. This article notes that lynchings of black people continued in North Carolina until 1968 (and let’s be honest I’m sure that further research would push that date much later, if not to present day). The idea that Jumpin’ and Mabel’s experience was in any way similar to Kya’s, who faces a few kids bashing on her door and a truant officer at worst, is ridiculous.
Owens’ complete lack of understanding and interest in the reality of their lives is further revealed when Jumpin’ says he will report Kya’s sexual assault to the police, because it is the right thing to do. That a black man would report the rape of a white woman to the police in this period and have any faith in fair treatment is just outright ridiculous. This is the character we saw being stoned by white people earlier in the novel. Owens has all the black people living in a separate village, and yet thinks Jumpin’ would report one of the town’s most popular inhabitants to the police for raping a white woman. I wish I could dismiss this as naivety, but really she just doesn’t care about them at all beyond their service to the plot, and is quite happy for them to exist as two-dimensional stereotypes. They are devices, not characters. This is, in all fairness, true of almost everyone in this book, but it is particularly egregious in this case. I wish I could be surprised by how few reviews have had anything at all to say about Jumpin’ and Mabel, but I’m coming to expect white writers to completely ignore racism in books they like, no matter how blatant.
Owens’ knowledge of the natural world could have been the novel’s redemption, and it does lead to some of the book’s best descriptive passages. But the trite moralising and complete lack of subtlety that so often accompanies these drag them back down to the calibre of the rest of the book.
This is probably my harshest review ever, but I’m afraid I just can’t recommend this book. It’s appeared in book clubs and listicles all over the place (and still dominates the sales charts), but I think popularity doesn’t reflect real success in this case. You may pick it up and have a totally different experience to me, but I think you’d be better off finding almost anything else to read.
Was I too harsh? Did you like Crawdads, and if so, why? I’d love to hear your thoughts and reflections on the book, so let me know what you think of it in the comments below!