Title: The Marsh King’s Daughter
Author: Karen Dionne
Published: June 13th 2017
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Genres: Fiction, Crime, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller
Praised by Karin Slaughter and Megan Abbott, The Marsh King’s Daughter is the mesmerizing tale of a woman who must risk everything to hunt down the dangerous man who shaped her past and threatens to steal her future: her father.
Helena Pelletier has a loving husband, two beautiful daughters, and a business that fills her days. But she also has a secret: she is the product of an abduction. Her mother was kidnapped as a teenager by her father and kept in a remote cabin in the marshlands of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Helena, born two years after the abduction, loved her home in nature, and despite her father’s sometimes brutal behavior, she loved him, too…until she learned precisely how savage he could be.
More than twenty years later, she has buried her past so soundly that even her husband doesn’t know the truth. But now her father has killed two guards, escaped from prison, and disappeared into the marsh. The police begin a manhunt, but Helena knows they don’t stand a chance. Knows that only one person has the skills to find the survivalist the world calls the Marsh King—because only one person was ever trained by him: his daughter.
The Marsh King’s Daughter is one of those novels that doesn’t quite slot into a category. It reads as a psychological thriller, a child abduction story, a coming of age tale and it could be viewed as a literary thriller. On top of all that, it draws upon a dark fable from Hans Christian Anderson, The Marsh King’s Daughter, to compliment the unfolding narrative, which is also told significantly in flashback form.
Thirteen years ago, Helena Pelletier put her father, Jacob Holbrook in jail. This notorious and dangerous criminal is a child abductor and murderer. When Helena’s mother was just 14 years old, he snatched her and took her to his remote cabin, hidden deep in the marshy swamp area of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. After three years in captivity, Helena’s mother gives birth to a baby girl, Helena. The resulting upbringing that Helena experiences is far from conventional. Firstly, she is unaware that her mother is being kept at the cabin under duress, this is withheld by Helena’s parents. Helena is also schooled in the art of hunting, tracking, swimming, fishing and told traditional cultural tales, stemming from her father’s native American background. When Helena is 12, her world as she knows it comes crashing down and an opportunity to escape from her father arises. In the present day, Jacob Holbrook has managed to escape prison, murdering two guards and he is now on the run. Helena is estranged from her father, concealing her deadly past. However, she knows she is the only one with the skills set to hunt her father down before he causes more havoc.
Debut author Karen Dionne tackles the emotionally fraught scenario of child abduction and places this kidnapping experience within an eerie psychological suspense tale, set deep in the American wilderness. This is not only the tale of the unfortunate young girl kidnapped, but her daughter, the sadistic man who held them captive and the relationship that forms between this unconventional family.
Dionne’s first novel is told primarily from flashback as the main character, Helena, looks back on her tumultuous upbringing in the Upper Peninsula, at the mercy of her father. The alternating style of narrative really helps set the scene for this cruel situation, offering a stirring and disturbing insight into life as a prisoner. The glimpses back into Helena’s youth are deeply unsettling and in this aspect of the novel, Dionne balances her narrative with sensitivity and insight. This makes Helena’s story more compelling and one we as the audience feel invested in following until the end.
Dionne applies a different narrative device to her novel, incorporating the use of a dark fable by Hans Christian Anderson, which reflects the experiences of Helena and her parents. This tale, also titled The Marsh King’s Daughter, is a short fantasy based story of the Helga, the daughter of a wicked Marsh King and a beautiful fairy princess from Egypt. At many points of the novel, the events of the book cross over with this fairy tale. The author also chooses to begin each chapter of her novel with excerpts of Fairy tale, which adds another layer to the story and will be sure to draw in fans of fairy tales.
Setting is a huge part of this first time novel. After reading an interview with the author, I discovered that Dionne was able to recreate such a strong sense of place by drawing on her own personal connection to the specific location in which the book is set. I am vastly unfamiliar with the Upper Peninsula territory of Michigan in the US. However, the deep sense of place and the ability of the author to transport the reader to this very different locale was admirable. The Marsh King’s Daughter is a real wilderness based tale. There are plenty of passages devoted to outdoor based adventure tasks such as hunting, tracking and fishing. The boggy marsh and sheer isolation of the region is portrayed perfectly by Dionne. This extends both to Helena’s experiences growing up in the marsh, through to her final showdown with her father in the latter stages of the book. It really draws on Helena’s survival skills and I have to say, these sections of the narrative were most compelling.
Dysfunctional family relationships are also put on the spotlight in The Marsh King’s Daughter. Helena’s parent’s relationship is not defined by love, rather it is of survival for Helena’s mother and oppression. There are sequences that are downright cruel, involving rape, animal abuse, domestic violence, neglect and instances of pure terror. In the same instance, there are moments where Jacob shows his warped sense of love to his daughter. He coaches her in the art of survival, to stand on her own two feet, to conquer her fears and he shares his cultural background through stories. It is an odd relationship, but I believe Jacob loved Helena in his own way.
All in all, The Marsh King’s Daughter captured my attention, mostly due to the fairy tale element that is gently woven through the narrative. I also appreciated the inner turmoil depicted by the lead character Helena and the interesting spin Karen Dionne has put on a kidnapping tale.
The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne was published on June 13th 2017 by Hachette Australia. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen Dionne, visit here.