Albeit flawed, 2020 was a wonderful year for debut novels. Some of my favorites — “A Burning” by Megha Majumdar, “The Best Part of Us” by Sally Cole-Misch and “Burnt Sugar” by Avni Doshi, to name a few — kept me company during endless hours indoors. 

Other debuts, however, were less thrilling. “Waiting For The Night Song,” a nature fiction debut by Julie Carrick Dalton, falls into this category. 

Dalton’s novel reads like a subdued version of Delia Owens’s “Where the Crawdads Sing.” Dalton, a journalist, tells the story of Cadie, an entomologist who grows up in a small town in rural New Hampshire. Young Cadie holds the local woods close to her heart until a deadly shooting turns her world upside down. The novel alternates between the present and the past, following Cadie and her best friend Daniela as they navigate the trauma they’ve inherited. The plot deftly intertwines themes of climate change, immigration and political polarization to create a layered and current story.

Fans of nature fiction will love Dalton’s lingering and thoughtful descriptions of our planet. “Wind stretched the clouds below her like raw cotton on a comb, allowing rusty tips of dead pine trees to peek through,” Dalton writes when Cadie stands at the peak of a mountain. And Cadie is just the type of lovable science geek that fellow environmental enthusiasts will love. Yet even with these luxurious descriptions, Dalton’s writing lacks depth and fails to pack a punch. 

Ironic for a thriller, this novel’s greatest downfall is its inability to effectively build up suspense. However, Dalton does a sufficient job of depicting trauma in a realistic and understandable way. “All of her experiences and memories were either before or after the gunshot,” Dalton writes of Cadie. Readers see how trauma lingers, appearing during otherwise ordinary moments with an intensity that transports you back to the incident itself. Yet, the events of the plot happen suddenly and without warning. Without suspense, readers don’t understand the gravity of situations that are meant to be transformative or traumatic for the characters. 

Similar to the plot, the romance in “Waiting For The Night Song” happens quickly and without any significant buildup. The relationship between Cadie and Garrett, a child across the lake that Cadie met during the fateful summer of the shooting, feels forced. Cadie and Garrett have had a handful of conversations together, yet when Cadie returns to her childhood woods nearly thirty years later, Garrett is suddenly all she can think about. “I think I’ve been waiting for you my whole life,” Cadie says, a phrase that was quite literally hard to read. How absurd this relationship feels isn’t a consequence of the character building, but because the plot lacks a sense of urgency and depth. It’s difficult to understand the strength of Cadie and Garrett’s bond when they only met for one summer at the ripe age of eleven years old. 

Despite its flaws, “Waiting For The Night Song” does have a bright side. Climate change-themed fiction is a hard genre to master while retaining an interested audience, and Dalton does a wonderful job weaving the acute threat of climatic warming into the plot. Cadie’s forest is both depicted as a comforting refuge and a landscape threatened with fire. “Silence lived at the top of mountains and deep in the woods, where the nuances of worms under soil, insects in the air, trees exhaling, and animals wooing gave dimension to the quiet,” Dalton eloquently writes, reminding us all of the serenity found outdoors. But when those same woods are on fire, the landscape is unrecognizable, the flames depicted as “harmony and melody thrashing with unrestrained grace” as they hungrily devour the forest trees. 

The dual depiction of the environment — as both a safe haven and something under constant threat of destruction — is a poignant reminder that we don’t have much time left before many of our local landscapes begin to resemble California, Australia or the Amazon. Dalton allows us to take comfort in our surroundings while also reminding us how much it would hurt to lose them. I think of this in nearly every encounter I have with the natural world — a peaceful moment walking through a grove of pine trees suddenly seems more sinister when I realize this same stand likely won’t be here in 50 years, when the climate of Michigan is projected to resemble present-day Arkansas. 

Even with these highlights on climate change, this novel still unforgivably lacks in plot and substance. It’s easy to turn the pages, but the story’s lack of urgency makes it ultimately unfulfilling. “Waiting For The Night Song” is a light, easy read, but don’t expect it to rock your world.

Daily Arts Writer Trina Pal can be reached at trpal@umich.edu.

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