The Wicked Sister by Karen Dionne

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Karen Dionne, The Wicked Sister

The follow-up to Karen Dionne’s award-winning The Marsh King’s Daughter, this psychological thriller reprises some of the elements of her earlier hit, with an all-new story and cast of characters on the fast-track for trouble. Like the earlier book, it’s set in the sparsely populated but heavily wooded Upper Peninsula of Michigan – the UP to us natives. A Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale was the framing device for the earlier book, not so here. Still, the main character, 26-year-old Rachel, has a long-lasting love of fairy tales, in their unDisneyfied, often violent originals. The grim Grimm.

The book’s most fantastical element is Rachel’s ability to talk to animals – spiders, ravens, bears. I’m not usually a fan of that kind of break with reality but Dionne doesn’t overdo it and handles these interactions with such a light touch that they are more enchanting than weird. What’s more, the animals’ advice is akin to the bland generalisations of a horoscope: ‘All will become known,’ ‘Things are not as they seem,’ ‘Remember.’ They could plausibly be her common sense talking. Whatever, they offer the encouragement that keeps Rachel focused.

Alternating chapters are narrated with first-person immediacy by Rachel (labeled ‘now’) and her mother Jenny (‘then’). In the now of the story, Rachel has spent the last 15 years in a state psychiatric hospital, convinced that she murdered her parents when she was 11. Drugs, electro-shock treatments and talk therapy have not shaken this all-consuming belief. Jenny’s ‘then’ chapters describe events leading up to the murders.

It isn’t until Rachel happens to see the crime report describing the murder weapon – a powerful rifle beyond the capability of a child to handle – that she realises she is innocent. The report says as much; the recoil would have left her a mass of bruises. But if she didn’t shoot them, who did? What really happened? She still can’t remember.

Because she’s of legal age and has remained in the hospital voluntarily, she can check herself out and does. With little formal education, no job and no money, she has little choice but to go home. Anyway, home is where the answers are. And the dangers.

She travels to the remote hunting lodge where she lived. There’s no telephone, no cell phone service and no neighbours. The lodge was built by Rachel’s great-grandfather, deep in 4000 acres of woods. Her parents moved there mostly to keep her older sister Diana, then age eight, away from other children. Children she could harm. And had harmed. At the lodge, maybe they could control and protect her.

On arrival, they found the lodge filled with hunting rifles and trophies, befitting its original purpose. Almost the first thing they did was empty the gun room and put the rifles in storage. Diana was a manipulative child and always got her way. Trying to refuse her something was an inevitable disaster. Maybe they made a mistake, but when Diana was a teenager the parents hoped to productively channel her habit of eviscerating small animals. They encouraged her to take up taxidermy. It turned out that she loved it.

Despite the undercurrent of anxiety that Dionne evokes in her work, the UP scenery is spectacular and lovingly described, including in the scenes narrated by Jenny. She and her husband were wildlife biologists and used this pristine wilderness for field research. Jenny’s specialty was bears. Sometimes Diana went with her and, when Rachel was old enough, she did too.

That was then. Of course, Rachel’s not sure what kind of reception she’ll receive now. Diana lives in the lodge with their Aunt Charlotte, who dotes on her, but Rachel still owns half. She arrives to an empty house and isn’t there long before she makes two discoveries: Diana plans to have her legally committed so she can sell off the family’s acreage for vacation homes – something their parents would never have allowed – and the guns are back.

Now Rachel has to protect not just herself, but also the family property. And she still wants those answers. Before Diana and Charlotte return to the lodge, she’ll have to hide. A confrontation with a devious and unstable person skilled at using razor-sharp implements in a house stocked with weapons has all the makings of a catastrophe, but Rachel has skills too. The battle of wits and wills is on.

Also try Gretchen by Shannon Kirk or the award-winning My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite.


CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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