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The Duchess of Cornwall has announced Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens as one of her next choices for her new book club – a book that, if we’d been allowed to travel in the summer of 2020, would have doubtless covered most of the sun loungers. A saga spanning the best part of 60 years, it follows Kya, a young girl living alone in the marshes, and brings in enough romance, crime and thriller elements to satisfy any reader in need of distraction – to which, hello lockdown.
A hit by any measure, buzz around Owens’s book has only been building since its release in 2018. Inspired by her experiences of isolation in big landscapes (she lives alone in Montana, and spent part of her 20s living with her then-husband, alone, in Africa, where they worked as naturalists), Crawdads was Amazon’s most-read and most-sold book of 2019, topped the New York Times bestseller lists, and had one of the year’s most highlighted passages on Kindle. “I get so lonely sometimes I can’t breathe,” she told CBS News in 2019, “and I decided to write a book about it.” Reese Witherspoon, who chose it for her Hello Sunshine book group in 2018, will produce the film adaptation.
It certainly makes more sense as a choice than the Duchess’s first pick earlier this month, Charlie Mackesey’s The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse, a book drawn from his Instagram drawings. Mackesey’s book is made up of moments; beautiful, inspiring and comforting ones as lovely to look at as they are to read. That has been enough to make his book 2020’s bestselling book in the UK, but in terms of good old-fashioned discussion, Owens’s book beats it hands down.
A cult following has built up around it that might seem familiar from Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Perfectly Fine. Like Honeyman, Owens is an older debut fiction author who perfectly captures the contemporary concerns of isolation, and the effect that loneliness can have on a person. The authors share female protagonists who have been abandoned by their families to scratch out a life on their own. In Crawdads, Kya is raised in the marshes, her mother and siblings fleeing her drunken father, until he eventually leaves her too. She lives on her own, but when the outside world finally comes to call, she ends up facing a murder charge.
That the book took Owens 10 years to write is catnip to readers, many dreaming of writing their own hit novel. Owens slept with a torch and a pad and pen next to her, noting down thoughts that occurred to her in the middle of the night. She ended up with a box filled with thousands of such notes, some of which were the usual dream porridge, some of which, such as “sand keeps secrets better than mud,” made it into the book.
Even the book's title stems from something Owens’ mother used to tell her, encouraging her to go out into the woods and listen to what they had to say. Owens soon discovered that crawdads do not sing – but that if she spent enough time in nature on her own, she would hear it nonetheless, and imbued Kya with this feeling for the wild.
The success of Owens’ book comes at a time when nature writing, especially that which has a memoir element of self-discovery, has never been more popular. And with locked down readers unable to explore for themselves, books like Where the Crawdads Sing, or Jojo Moyes’ The Giver of Stars, lets us travel in ways we all too recently took for granted. Both books also celebrate the joy of building literacy, and both have a murder plot at their heart.
Owens hits the sweet spot of the big literary genres, romance, crime and thriller, in a way that is entirely uncynical. Readers can sense a unicorn. In Owens, and her creation, Kya, they’ve found one.