The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

3 Mins read

This book has been described as ‘Room meets The Revenant‘. That might grab some readers but for me the description, and the topic of child abduction, gave me pause. Who wants to be plunged into the claustrophobia of Room and at the same time face the The Revenant’s hard-core survivalism in America’s wilderness?

Yet Karen Dionne’s book turns out to be about so much more than child abduction. It is a tense thriller which will have you nervously peering around the darker corners of your room while turning the pages ever faster. It is also a thoughtful story about the limits of parental love, escaping the past and being at peace with one’s heritage. It is a fantastic book, bursting out of all the artificial constraints the publisher marketing wants to box it in.

It hasn’t been easy, but Helena Pelletier thinks she has left her unfortunate past behind. Nobody knows that she was born in captivity. Her husband and daughters are unaware that her own father was a notorious child abductor called Jacob Holbrook – aka The Marsh King – who kept her mother imprisoned for many years. Helena spent her first 12 years in an isolated cabin in the swampland of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

When her father was caught and imprisoned, they were freed from his control. Her mother was left an emotional wreck, but Helena changed her name and tried to create a new identity for herself. She is still a little awkward with people, no fan of small talk, rebelling against social conventions and timekeeping.

One day she hears on the news that Holbrook has escaped from a maximum security prison and immediately senses that he will be making his way back to the marshes and to find her. She was indirectly responsible for his capture, so she feels guilty and suspects he may be out for revenge. His wildlife tracking and hunting skills are second to none, but he has taught his daughter well, and she knows that she is better placed than the police to seek him out. She is certain she has to get to him before he gets to her, so this becomes a desperate chase. But, who is the hunter, who is being hunted?

Despite Helena’s justified fears for herself and her family, her feelings about her father are far more ambiguous than one might expect. The rational part of her knows that what he did to her mother was wrong, that he is a violent, tyrannical and manipulative man. However, a part of her “that will forever be the little pigtailed girl who idolised her father” cannot help but be glad that he is now free. Disconnecting from the past is not as easy as she once thought.

It is this ambiguity of emotions which gives the book its lasting impact. The author refuses to see the story in simplistic, black and white terms. Even the most evil man can love and protect his child, even if he goes about it in a way most of us would find totally unacceptable. The skills the Marsh King teaches his daughter are superfluous in today’s world – and, to be honest, rather repellant. These parts make for difficult reading, and not just for those of a more squeamish disposition. There are long passages describing knives and other weapons, the killing and skinning of animals, and laying of traps, which will have animal lovers and gun control activists shudder. However, those who like to follow Bear Grylls’ exploits on TV will find it exciting and very revealing of character.

The references to the Hans Christian Andersen story of The Marsh King’s Daughter gives this an oddly timeless feel: the human need for connection and belonging, even though many go about it in the wrong way. A much more subtle book than the plot summary suggests, this is a thought-provoking read which lingers in your mind as surely as the sulphurous odours from the swamps.

For more wilderness noir check out The River At Night or Hold the Dark, both excellent reads with a creepy morbidity to them.


CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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