In screen dramas, during a scene of sex or violence in a living room, the camera will often slyly reveal that a David Attenborough wildlife documentary is playing unwatched in the corner. The naturalist’s whispered observations about the tactics of the “male” or “female” comment ironically or ominously on the human interactions.
That trope is spectacularly extended in Where the Crawdads Sing, the debut novel by Delia Owens, an American wildlife scientist. It lands in Britain boosted by the cherished trinity of New York Times bestsellerdom, a frenzied foreign sales fight, and a film in development by Reese Witherspoon (her online book club picked the novel in September 2018).
The main storyline spans – in a date-jumbling, tension-building order –1952 to 1970, following Kya Clark between the ages of six and 25 as she grows up alone in a shack in the swamplands of North Carolina after being abandoned by her family. She learns from the wildlife around her, gaining tricks of camouflage to evade truant officers and acquiring hunting skills to feed herself and catch mussels and fish to sell to shopkeepers in the town beyond the creek.
As a human who knows only nature, all Kya’s reference points come from her surroundings – and her creator’s day job. Her observation that mother animals and birds always return to their young leads her poignantly to believe that her childhood solitude will be temporary. When, as a teenager, she starts to attract attention from two townie boys, kind working-class Tate and arrogant posh boy Chase, her dating rituals are drawn from observing the sex life of fireflies. She also, crucially, observes the dangers of predation in the wild.
Among the many modern phenomena of which isolated Kya has no inkling is the vast popularity of crime fiction. But Owens knows the tricks of the genre, beginning the novel with a prologue set in 1969 in which a young man has died suspiciously in the swamp. The rest of the book cuts between the investigation, in which bigoted witnesses incriminate the “swamp girl”, and flashbacks to Kya’s youth and young adulthood, as local suspicion grows that makes the white people dislike her almost as much as they do the residents of the area known, in the prejudiced term of the time, as Colored Town.
Appreciating the fictional limitations of a feral recluse with no vocabulary or life skills, Owens provides tutors for Kya. As a result, the tone of the central section sometimes feels like YA, as Kya is instructed by a wise African American woman (one of the supporting characters who flirt with virtuous cliche) in the mysteries of men and menstruation.
But soon the narrative is satisfyingly reclaimed for older adults when at the local library Kya reads an article entitled “Sneaky Fuckers” in a science journal, which describes deceitful mating strategies. These include undersized bullfrogs who hang out with the alpha males with a view to picking up spare females, and the male damselfly, to whom God or Darwin has given a useful scoop that removes the sperm of a prior impregnator to clear the passage for his own.
As with those Attenborough clips in screen fiction, these anecdotes hover as metaphors for the behaviour of males in the story, and will allow the director of the eventual film to have fun with pointed cutaways. The divided timeline – a standard cinematic structure – will also help the screenwriter. And somewhere in stage schools now are the actors who, playing the young and older Kya, should have a shot at Oscars.
She is a vivid and original character. At times, her survival in isolation comes close to superheroism, but Owens convincingly depicts the instincts and calculations that get Kya into and out of difficulties. Without too much sentimentality, there is a strong emotional line in her desire to have a “shred of family”. The potential soppiness of a coming-of-age romance is also offset by the possibility that Kya is a murderer, although Owens has studied the big beasts of crime fiction sufficiently to leave room for doubt and surprises.
The storylines involving social competition and violent death feel like a reworking, from a young female perspective, of Theodore Dreiser’s classic 1925 melodrama An American Tragedy. Like Dreiser, Owens combines high tension with precise detail about how people dress, sound, live and eat – the case studies in her book are both human and natural.
Surprise bestsellers are often works that chime with the times. Though set in the 1950s and 60s, Where the Crawdads Sing is, in its treatment of racial and social division and the fragile complex-ities of nature, obviously relevant to contemporary politics and ecology. But these themes will reach a huge audience though the writer’s old-fashioned talents for compelling character, plotting and landscape description.
• Mark Lawson’s novel The Allegations is published by Picador.
Source: The Guardian