Suspension of disbelief. When I became old enough to understand what this phrase meant, I used it as a worthy ally in my book reading journey. Simply put, what it means is that to truly enjoy a movie, a book or any other form of fiction, you need to ignore some of the more “impossible” plot points in the creative work to derive a sense of enjoyment from it. So it is very important to put aside your critical faculties and not keep on saying WTF every time you encounter something that your mind can’t bend around.
So like any other work of fiction, I had this in my backpack as I picked up “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens. Rave reviews by celebrities helped bolster the feeling that I was in good company with this book.
“I can’t even express how much I love this book! I didn’t want this story to end!”–Reese Witherspoon
The coming of age story in this debut novel by the author is of a young girl, Kya, who lives in a marshland in North Carolina. Abandoned by her family, and ignored by the town at large, she learns to live in isolation but in touch with nature. Gradually, she learns to make a living by fishing, and selling her catch to a friendly family (a trader named Jumpin’) in town. Having no reason to attend school, she cannot read or write. But gradually, she even learns to read with the help of a one-time friend of her elder brother.
Like any coming of age story, she falls in love but after a couple of heartbreaks, she vows to never get fooled in love again and starts to prefer the company of her less human friends than to suffer another rejection. With lots and lots of time on her hand, and no one to disturb her, she starts doing what any other person would do. Write. With her extensive first-hand knowledge of the marshland, she pens down a few manuscripts on the flora and fauna of the area. Within a few years, she becomes a best-selling author, all this without having to meet her agent or publisher, or attend any marketing events! Using the royalties from her book, she even manages to renovate her familial home and even buy out a considerable portion of the marshland!
Now the clincher of the story, what makes this a murder mystery is the mysterious death of one of the inhabitants of the town. Unfortunately, the detectives assigned to the case make a buffoonish mess of the whole case by relying on circumstantial evidence to implicate the marsh girl as the prime suspect. Kya is arrested and held in a prison cell for a couple of months without trial. I particularly liked the way the author projected her time of isolation in the prison cell as a continuation of her isolation in the marsh. The book then ends with a short trial of the marsh girl as she is defended by a famous attorney – a white knight who magically appears in the story.
Now, why did I not like the book? Well, all of these events by themselves are alright. But somehow the entire set of events do not gel into a believable plot. Moreover the development of some of the characters is lacking. It is evident that the protagonists, her love interests and her friends get a sufficient number of pages to be explored and presented. But the side characters are merely cardboard cutouts – the detectives, the mysterious attorney, etc. Even Jumpin’ and his family are partly hidden in the shadows. Except for an episode each devoted to Jumpin’ and his wife, they are left underdeveloped. It would have helped to introduce a back-story for Kya’s attorney (as to why he would be willing to defend her pro bono), or the resort project that causes Kya to walk-in to the town office and walk out with the deed for the marshland in her hands. Oh, and the poetry? I simply skipped those parts without a second thought.
The author has written non-fiction before, however this is her first stab at a novel. So she could be forgiven for the flaws in the book. But this then becomes any other story about growing up, facing heart-break and rejection and then overcoming the odds to some extent. I had picked up this book because of the glowing reviews online and had read that it was a murder mystery. But in essence the book feels more like a YA, romance genre. Read this if you’re interested in living in the woods or learning about the marshland life. Else you are better off leaving the marsh girl in peace. Both you and her will be better off this way.