This month will be the first book club where we do not meet in person. The world has changed. We seem to find ourselves living in a dystopian fiction, worthy of a book club review. But the unsettling fact is that this is not a fiction. A virus has managed to ease its way into the fabric of our society. It hasn’t fought its way, no real fight needed. The spread has been easy; we left the door open and it came in. An opportunist. An infective agent that has reshaped our interactions with each other. New words have been introduced. We must practise ‘social distancing’ and ‘self- isolate’. Distance and isolation have long held negative connotations. ‘Long distance relationships don’t work’. A long distance relationship requires so much more effort, trust and communication than a normal relationship. Social isolation has long been associated with poor mental health, depression and anxiety. There is so much to lose, but what about the gains? Is there a way that this will change us for the better?
Our book this month has been ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ by Delia Owens. It’s set on the North Carolina coast in the 1950s and 1960s. The body of a young man is discovered in the swamp and the community suspect the ‘marsh girl’, Kya. We first meet Kya as a child of six, abandoned by her mother and siblings, she lives alone with her alcoholic father, in a remote shack on the marshes, until even he leaves. “This little piggy stays home”, Kya says to the waves after her last sibling leaves her. The use of a children’s rhyme, usually counted out on a toddler’s toes, highlights the incongruous image of a child alone. As a reader we feel her loneliness as a physical pain. “Loneliness had become a natural appendage to Kya, like an arm. Now it grew roots inside her and pressed against her chest.” Owens personifies it, it is suffocating. This is a tale of her survival, alone in the marsh and the prejudice she encounters along the way. But it is also a love story, a tale of seeing past differences and a celebration of the natural world all around us.
Kya comes to depend on the nature around her as her constant companion. “Nature seemed the only stone that would not slip midstream”. Nature does not let her down and she becomes an expert in the minute details of the wildlife all around her. When Kya judges by the moon that she has turned seven she seeks comfort from the animals around her. “It is my birthday, she told the bird.” There is no judgement from the birds on the beach or the ocean or the marsh. Nature contrasts with the small mindedness of the people that Kya encounters. When Kya is in the village a mother pulls her child away from her, “don’t go near that girl, ya hear me. She’s dirty.” The reader recoils at this reaction. How could she be so cruel? But are we sure we would have acted any differently? We are all scared of what we don’t know or understand.
Marsh land is often seen as hostile, uninhabitable waste land. Owens describes it at the opening of the novel as a “space of light”. A place “where grass grows in water and water flows into the sky.” There is a sense of vastness in this description, it seems almost biblical. The “light” illuminating not just the physical darkness, but also the metaphorical darkness that lives within all of us.
Where the Crawdads Sing is a beautiful read. At a time where we are all at risk of suffering from loneliness, maybe the gains are that we will finally open our eyes to what is around us. The blossom on the trees, the bird song, the blue skies. We are calling our friends and family daily, spending time with our children and learning who they really are. Most importantly maybe, we are learning that we are all in this together. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’. It’s bloody hard sometimes, but the human spirit shines strong at moments of great hardship.
Keep safe everyone. Oh, and online drinks chat. An evening out without having to actually go out, who could ask for more? I think it will be one of the things we keep after all this is over!