Over the past decade, if anyone asked me about my favorite book of all time, I’d tell them about Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. The story, set in Bombay, India, is about an Australian fugitive who flees to the country and gets involved with the local mob while making life-long friends and falling in love with a beautiful woman. On the surface it sounds as cliche as a story can be, but Roberts’ narrative style and masterful use of language takes the reader away to India and leaves him wanting more by the time the book comes to an end almost one thousand pages later. I loved that story from its poetic opening to the last heart-breaking pages, and it stayed as my all-time favorite until this week.
A week ago I began reading Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing, a story about a little girl who is eventually abandoned by her entire family in the marshlands off the North Carolina coast. She is forced to grow up on her own and learns resilience and self-reliance in the most extreme circumstances. It is equal parts heart-breaking and inspiring. Owens not only brings to life a beautiful, full character, but she paints the picture of the marshland so vividly that I can feel the Spanish moss whisking across my face as I float through the water with Kya, the main character.
The book follows Kya’s life as she struggles to survive and comes of age with no constant adult presence other than the sweet store owner, nicknamed Jumpin’, who mans a store/shack on the pier in the nearest town. Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel become surrogate parents for Kya. To make the relationship even more interesting, Jumpin’ and Mabel are black and Kya is white in 1950s and 1960s North Carolina. There’s a symbiotic relationship between Kya and the couple because both are ostracized by the locals since neither is accepted or understood. The locals derisively refer to Kya as the “Marsh Girl” or swamp trash because she lives in a rundown shack, never attends school, and prefers to avoid contact with people. The reason the locals show disdain for Jumpin’ and Mabel needs no explanation in this unfortunate era of American history.
Despite all of the odds stacked against her, Kya survives and eventually becomes an expert on the creatures of the marshland. She falls into and out of love, and there’s an intriguing accidental death/murder that occurs in the marsh, which Owens expertly weaves into the narrative of her life. Just when you think you have it all figured out as the climax of the novel happens, there’s a twist and one final release that will leave you reeling at the end. I’m purposefully being very vague about the story line because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone. It’s best read unimpeded by explanations. The beauty of the story is how it unfolds and toys with your emotions. I loved it. I felt sadness when I had to say goodbye to Kya after I read the last few words of the book.
I absolutely love books that paint a vivid picture of the setting and bring the characters fully to life as living, breathing people practically sitting next to you as you read. Owens’ prose is efficient and spare, not quite Hemmingway-esque, but certainly not as flowing as Roberts’ prose in Shantaram. Nevertheless, the narrative voice gives the reader plenty to like. The story stands on its own, somewhat complicated but not so much so that I had to flip back pages to keep it straight. Owens is a scientist and it shows in her efficiency. What she has created is a wonderful novel worthy of all of the praise she has received. I add to that the dubious honor of being my favorite book of all time. I’m sure she’ll take it to the bank. In all seriousness, thank you Ms. Owens for this beautiful story.