Updated: 5 days ago
Having fully exhausted my reserves of box sets, I'm once again back on the sofa, this time re-visiting my favourite reads of the past few months and adding a few newbies to the list.
Much like many of you, I'm desperately in need of a shot of adrenaline and I've been seeking out gritty dramas and thrillers to liven up these quiet evenings in lockdown. The pickings have been rich with lots of brilliant writers coming to the fore, so let's begin our series of must-reads 2021 with two of the best novels to catch my eye so far this year.
Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.
"I wasn't aware that words could hold so much. I didn't know a sentence could be so full."
In her 2018 debut novel, Delia Owens presents a breathtaking exploration of abuse, discrimination, abandonment and loneliness as well as the mechanisms that we employ for both physical survival and the preservation of the human spirit.
Where The Crawdad's Sing takes us into the world of Kya Clark, a six year old girl whose mentally unstable mother, due to the recurrent abusive behaviour of Kya's father, deserts her, along with her other four children and their dilapidated shack of a family home. Left alone to manage her father's abusive outbursts and alcoholism, Kya also navigates her way through the mire of poverty and prejudice that is part of her daily existence. She seeks out solace and finds it by retreating further into the familiar protection of the marsh.
A compelling, coming-of-age tale, set against the backdrop of the North Carolina marshlands, the plot unfolds through the entwining of two different timelines. Flitting between the 50s and 60s, we watch as Kya, a wild and beautiful outcast, surrounds herself with the seabirds and the enchanting richness of wildlife, indeed, as she grows, Kya develops such an affinity with her world that she "could find her way home by the stars” and “knew every feather of an eagle.” Ostracised from "respectable" society by the intolerant townsfolk, Kya is ridiculed for her impoverished origins and bullied into leaving school, instead "she'd learn (ed) from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no-one else would."
Then, when Tate, a local boy, fascinated by the legend of the "Swamp girl" seeks Kya out, watches and befriends her by leaving gifts of feathers and then teaches her how to read, love tempts the "marsh girl" to contemplate possibilities she'd never imagined. However, as Tate finds himself unable to bring Kya into his world and unwilling to live in hers, their relationship culminates in her abandonment once more.
Fast forward to 1969, Chase Andrews, a popular young man from Barkley Cove, lies dead beneath a fire tower in the surrounding marshes and Kya finds herself in a courtroom suspected of his murder.
What sets this apart?
Where The Crawdad's Sing has resonated with me deeply due to the newly acquired appreciation that I've developed with my surroundings since our first lockdown. With the world at a standstill and the degree of uncertainty that our current situation has created, I, like many of you, have had to re-think my priorities and find new coping mechanisms. Through the sadness and the tears I've taken to seeking out the positives, resulting in a love and new appreciation of walking outdoors, hence the stunning, picturesque imagery created in Delia Owen's book will remain with me for years to come.
There is beauty in the vivid, poetic and lyrical descriptions of nature, albeit an overwhelming sadness too. I am immensely grateful for the recommendation from my Twitter buddy Ross, without which I wouldn't have stumbled across this gem.
I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. ★★★★★
Girl A by Abigail Dean.
"If anyone was going to make it, it was going to be you."
"Girl A" is a survivor.
At the age of 15 she escapes captivity from the home where she and her siblings have been forced to endure neglect and torture at the hands of their religious fanatic father. Media frenzy ensues, names are replaced by aliases and the faces of the seven children become pixellated images on the front pages of tabloids in one of the country's most harrowing stories of abuse.
Years later, Lex (alias Girl A), now a successful lawyer, returns to England from America to act as the executor of her dead mother's will.
Collecting her mother's possessions from the prison in which she died, Lex is left to distribute the £20,000 inheritance, and with her brothers and sisters, she must decide the future of the notorious "House of Horrors" (Hollowfield, England), where the abuse took place years earlier. Lex, in her attempt to heal wants to re-develop the house into something that will benefit the wider community but first she needs the go-ahead from her siblings.
Having all been adopted by different families it is now time for the siblings to re-unite and revisit the trauma of their shared experience.
Flashbacks allow us to delve into the events in the house, the family dynamics that play out as the children struggle to survive, the impact of the media spotlight and finally we witness the psyches of the broken adults that have emerged from the carnage.
What sets this apart?
Abigail Dean leads us into the murky world of childhood trauma and the resulting aftermath of psychological damage that victims are forced to carry forward into their adult life.
Although a work of fiction, certain aspects of the story reminded me of true-life cases that have hit the headlines over the years and at times, admittedly, I needed to take a breather before reading on. However, rather than focusing purely on the events that occurred in "that" house, the author, in her own words, was intent on writing a novel "about humanity and hope."
Not gratuitous, but nonetheless intense, this is, at times, a disturbing, yet ultimately rewarding read. An uplifting story of survival, and the healing power of love.
The story of Girl A will stay with you long after the book is closed.
Do you have any recommendations to add to our list? Let us know, we’d love to hear from you!