I would have found this an interesting, absorbing, affecting novel if Crawdads had continued on as it started – a tale of a lonely, abandoned ‘marsh girl’ who channels her love and interest into nature rather than humans (who have so betrayed her). Owens’ history as a naturalist shines through in the wonderful descriptions of the watery marshlands of North Carolina (which we now call wetlands, recognising their diversity and importance). While it is perhaps hard to believe in young Kya as a total autodidact (she attends school for only one day), her salvation is the study of the environment around her.
I was taken by the idea of seven-year-old Kya learning to live on her own in a shack on the water, scraping together just enough food to keep herself going, befriending seabirds, dodging truant officers, and having to be tamed into a tentative friendship by Tate, a boy a couple of years older who can see past the small town’s prejudice against the ‘white trash’ who live marginal lives in and around the waterways.
However, woven in with this initial story, is the suspicious death some fifteen years later of well-off, tear-away town-boy Chase who has fallen from a watchtower. Just how Kya is linked to this death is the trajectory the novel takes, and this is where, to my mind, it strays into genre fiction territory. I can only think that Owens thought there was just not enough in the story of Kya overcoming odds to become accepted in society and to live her life as a successful naturalist. The phenomenal success of the book probably proves her right, but there is something terribly wrong with the denouement of the novel.
The final twist is a betrayal of the reader. (Spoiler below) For a novel to be successful it has to have an internal consistency. Owens goes to some lengths to develop Kya as a character – she is hurt and betrayed but she overcomes this, she finds friends and allies. She matures and is essentially a good, independent person. For the final twist to work we must believe [that she planned an elaborate murder, she was able to lure Chase, who last we saw she’d punched and kicked after he raped her, to the watchtower at a particular time, that she was able to concoct disguises with no one twigging it, that in a tiny town they actually had buses running at night, that somehow she either had the red wool hat with her, or went home to get it, or that the fibres were left on Chase’s jacket from years before, that even though she only had twenty minutes to do the whole thing she removed footprints in the dark including Chase’s which if she was so clever she would have left. We also have to accept that she wrote a poem about the killing and kept the tell-tale shell necklace in a hiding place in the shack (although the sheriff thoroughly searched it) for poor Tate to find after her death. Why? She hated Chase, why would she keep the necklace?
And the final betrayal that is totally out of character is Kya accepting the support of her ‘friends’ (Jumpin, Mabel, Tate, Tate’s dad, her editor). The reader feels good about their loyalty to Kya in court, the way they stand by her as she professes her innocence, when all the while their support is betrayed. That is not the behaviour of the Kya we know – she committed the murder, she would either have admitted it, or she would have never been caught, disappearing into the marsh back to a lonely, isolated life.