Attempting to focus your mind on literally anything that isn’t related to the coronavirus takes a special sort of superhuman mind control, but the debut novel by zoologist and nature writer Delia Owens had me transported to another world (and another ecosystem) writes Kate Brayden.
Set in the swamplands of North Carolina during the 1960s, gradually building tension into the 1970s, the American wildlife author utilises the environment to paint a portrait about the cruelty of enforced isolation.
The tale follows Kya Clark from the age of six up to 25, as she copes with her own abandonment by each member of her family until — at ten years old — she must learn to fend for herself. The swamp takes the place of her guardian, and though she is illiterate, her prowess as a biologist becomes unmatched.
This takes inspiration from Owens’ own childhood in southern Georgia, where her mother used to tell her to “Go way out yonder where the crawdads sing.” Her mother taught her how to hike without stepping on rattle snakes, and not to fear the inhabitants of the ecosystem. Delia went on to spend most of her life in or near true wilderness, and since childhood has thought of the outdoors as a true companion and close friend.
Flicking back and forth through the timeline, the plot follows the mysterious murder of the town’s golden boy until the final answer is eventually revealed – but only after we witness Kya’s own fight for survival. Bigoted witnesses yearn to blame the murder on the “swamp girl”, with Owens using influences from crime fiction, nature writing and even YA romance to keep the reader consistently entertained. Owens also cleverly uses anecdotes of mating rituals of insects and animals as metaphors for the (usually fairly heartless) behaviour of the novel’s male characters.
As Kya grows, she acquires tricks from the marshlands surrounding her, learning how to fish and hunt in order to garner the cash for food. Later on, she utilises her observations of wildlife and applies them to dating when two boys of opposite backgrounds show an interest in her.
Despite being viewed as “white trash” and the epitome of a pariah, Kya is underestimated her entire life – learning camouflage to escape the clutches of those who target her.
The book cuts between the murder investigation and the progagonist’s lonely upbringing, dodging her abusive father while missing her mother and older brother, Jodie. Kya looks to nature for answers to the question of why everyone around her eventually leaves, but finds solace in guidance from a married couple who live in ‘Coloured Town’.
As a recluse with little vocabulary and a target of ridicule, she can relate to the prejudice ruthlessly handed down to the black people of the town.
The compelling character will presumably be spun into a film role in the future, with a star turn by an up-and-coming actress. It was refreshing to read such a three-dimensional character, a fast-paced plot which left room for beautiful writing and a study of racial tensions and social division in a country that has much progress to make to achieve equality.
In a pandemic which shines a light on the frailty and failure of capitalism in a crisis, the book demands respect for the natural world and its inhabitants. Let it transport you to another era, another landscape and another mindset while you self-isolate indoors.