Delia Owens’ fiction debut Where the Crawdads Sing is a moving and beautifully written portrait of the life of Kya, a young girl growing up alone in the marshes of North Carolina after being abandoned by her family. This novel has a little something to suit every reader’s interests: a love triangle, a murder mystery, vivid depictions of the surrounding nature, and a touching coming-of-age story of a young woman, but it is Owens’ lyrically adept prose that makes the book so memorable. Where the Crawdads Sing is a novel that envelops you right from the start, and one that I have returned to many times since my first read, becoming a sure-fire comfort read on my shelf. If you felt the same about Owens’ debut, be sure to check out these eight books.
1. Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng
When Lydia, the daughter of a Chinese American couple living in 1970s Ohio, is found dead in a local lake, her family plunges into chaos. Her parents, Marilyn and James, had pinned all their hopes on her pursuing the successful life which was unavailable to them, and her death is the nail in the coffin for a family and a couple that has barely been keeping it together. As the narrative jumps between uncovering the secrets kept by various members of the family like Lydia’s siblings Nath and Hannah as well as their parents, the reader is gripped by the mystery of what happened to Lydia.
Much like Where the Crawdads Sing, the mystery in Everything I Never Told You is much more than just a gripping page turner as Ng paints a masterful portrait of family life and the way in which families struggle to understand, and often even to love, each other. Ng and Owens’ use of secrets as a plot device, as well as a commentary on the nature of our relationships with others, are tied in expertly and with poise. The novel is a must-read for fans of Where the Crawdads Sing.
2. Brick Lane, by Monica Ali
Monica Ali’s debut Brick Lane narrates the life of Nazneen, who is sent to live in a London council estate through an arranged marriage to an older man. Nazneen, who is 17 when she is married, becomes suffocated by her domestic life and eventually begins an affair with Karim, a man whose jeans she repairs to bring her family extra money. Ali delicately explores the Bangladeshi woman’s experience both at home and abroad through the narration of letters Nazneen receives from her sister back home, and through the relationships Nazneen forms with other women in her community.
In Ali’s depiction of the experience of the disoriented immigrant wife in London, there are striking similarities to Kya’s lonely experience in the North Carolina marshes. It is astonishing to consider that both Brick Lane and Where the Crawdads Sing are authorial debuts, given their expert portrayals of the most intimate experiences of women. For those struck by the resilience of Kya in the face of utter isolation, and the way in which she builds a life for herself out of nothing, make Brick Lane your next read.
3. The Librarian of Auschwitz, by Antonio Iturbe
Antonio Iturbe’s The Librarian of Auschwitz tells the powerful true story of 14-year-old Dita during her imprisonment by the Nazis at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When the prisoners establish a secret school within the family section of the camp, Dita is entrusted with the task of looking after eight smuggled books. In such a desolate place, these books become a priceless commodity, and the reader follows Dita through her encounters with guards and other prisoners, not knowing who to trust as she endeavours to keep both the books, herself, and her loved ones safe. Although Iturbe focuses on Dita, the portrayals of her fellow prisoners paint a touching picture of how love manages to survive, and occasionally even blossom, in a place as evil as the Nazi concentration camps.
A touching, heart-breaking read, we latch onto and root for Dita throughout the story which echoes Owens’ portrayal of Kya, despite their vastly different locations and situations. If you found yourself wishing for more of Kya’s story after finishing Where the Crawdads Sing, get yourself a copy of The Librarian of Auschwitz, and immerse yourself in the world of Dita Kraus.
4. A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini
Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns is a breathtaking story of the relationship between Mariam and Laila, both married to Rasheed, a shoemaker in Kabul. The novel, set across a 30 year span, illustrates the turbulent history of modern Afghanistan through the small-scale tale of one family. Despite initial hostility between the two women, a friendship eventually blossoms between them. Brought together only through the tragic realities of war, they struggle to survive, raise a family, and find happiness amidst the violence they face both within their home and outside.
Hosseini is well-known for his remarkable storytelling ability, and A Thousand Splendid Suns in particular is an unforgettable account of Afghan history and its impact on the Afghani people. The story, like Where the Crawdads Sing, is full of beautifully written prose and tender depictions of love. Where the portrayal of Kya’s relationships were primarily romantic, this novel shines in its depiction of the friendship between two women, and is a must read for those who noticed the absence of platonic love in Where the Crawdads Sing.
5. Supper Club, by Lara Williams
Supper Club invites readers into the world of Roberta and her friends who, tired of women being told not to take up space, invent the Supper Club. This secret society comprises women who meet to reclaim their appetites, celebrate their hunger, and feast to the point of being sick. The women are unapologetic as their bodies grow larger, and yet as this simple act of resistance to gendered norms gains momentum, they begin to push the boundaries of rebellion even further. As the Supper Club becomes more wild, and with that more controversial, Roberta must reconcile with what her body represents to her, and a past that she has tried to forget.
With Supper Club, Williams gives readers a coming-of-age story of a woman who, much like Kya, must navigate the boundaries of a society from which she has felt isolated throughout her life. Both authors present intricately woven narratives which depict the experience of growing up as a woman, and the relationships they form with themselves, their bodies, and those around them. Fans of the growing up aspect of Where the Crawdads Sing should be sure to check out Supper Club.
6. Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga
Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions is a modern classic, and the first novel of a trilogy that narrates the life of Tambu, a young girl in Rhodesia during the 1960s who is given the chance to get an education after the sudden death of her brother. Dangarembga depicts Tambu’s enlightenment from her naive belief that education will free her from a life of poverty on the family homestead to her slow realization of the difficulties faced by black women. Caught between the patriarchal society of her traditional Shona culture and the racial implications of the white minority rule in Rhodesia, Dangarembga negotiates complex questions of race, class, and gender all in the face of huge cultural change through Tambu’s narrative.
Apart from being a striking portrait of postcolonial Africa, Nervous Conditions is an emotionally powerful novel, and Tambu functions as more than simply a useful narrator. As readers experience with her the slow realization of the obstacles society has set for her, it is impossible not to become emotionally involved and root for her ultimate success. Nervous Conditions has the same moving story of a young woman trying to find her place in the world and overcome the difficulties presented to her as Where the Crawdads Sing, and it is an important read for anyone trying to diversify their bookshelf.
7. The Hungry Tide, by Amitav Ghosh
The Hungry Tide introduces readers to Piya, a young American marine biologist with Indian heritage, who travels to the group of wild islands known as the Sundarbans off the Bay of Bengal to research a rare type of dolphin. Piya, out of her depth in the untamed landscape, enlists the help of Fokir, a local fisherman, and Kanai, a translator. As the three of them head into the treacherous waters, their personal lives become entangled among a background of simmering political tension.
Ghosh’s novel, an exploration of personal relations set in front of an eloquently written depiction of nature, echoes Owens’ narration of Kya’s life in the marshlands. The Hungry Tide also discusses the vast inequality faced by the indigenous Sundarban people, an issue which Where the Crawdads Sing similarly explores through Jumpin’s character. Both novels evoke an interrogation into the human relationship with nature, and ask us to consider how we exploit and undervalue our natural environments, and often the people within them. For readers who enjoy environmental fiction, add The Hungry Tide to your list.
8. Milkman, by Anna Burns
Set in Northern Ireland amidst “The Troubles,” middle sister, the protagonist of Anna Burns’ Milkman, lives in a small community where being noticed is dangerous. When an older man with a political agenda, referred to only as “milkman” starts to harass her, middle sister is determined to keep her encounter a secret. After her brother-in-law discovers her secret and rumours begin to circulate, middle sister becomes interesting, the last thing she’s ever wanted to be.
Anna Burns’ Booker Prize winning novel is a compelling representation of a Northern Irish community struggling through the 1970s. In Milkman, even the smallest actions are politicized as the characters live through a time of immense tension. Burns’ portrayal of the devastating consequences of gossip, and people’s failure to stop gossip, is reminiscent of Owens’ depiction of the hearsay which also almost ruins Kya’s life. As well as being exceptionally written, both Where the Crawdad Sings and Milkman force readers to consider the realities of being alienated in a small and strained town, and readers of Owens are sure to be fans of Burns.