Equal parts disturbing, thrilling and enthralling, Karen Dionne has created a satisfyingly complicated, multilayered character in the eponymous Marsh King’s Daughter. Helena’s very existence challenges the reader to look at the monstrous act of a child abductor from the point of view not of his original victim, but her child.
Add into the mix a remote wilderness locale, a dangerous criminal at large, and an epic struggle that will pit a daughter against the father that she both loves and loathes. In short, The Marsh King’s Daughter is a master class in psychological thriller writing: un-put-downable.
Helena Pelletier lives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – close to the Canadian border – with her wildlife photographer husband Stephen, their two daughters and a fearless three-legged Plot hound, Rambo – who tried to take on a black bear. Helena has built a calm, happy life for herself and her on the property she inherited from her paternal grandparents – although, she still needs to escape into the wilderness every now and again, to hunt and gather and get back to the wild born child she still is at her core.
But Helena has a dark secret – one that could destroy her and ones she loves. Because Helena is the daughter of Jacob Holbrook, the man they call The Marsh King and the woman he kidnapped, raped and held captive for twelve years in an off-the-grid cabin in the wilderness. Now, after 13 years in prison, her father has escaped. And Helena – trained from birth to be a warrior and hunter – will now use those very skills to track down the man to whom she is both drawn and repelled. But what will she do when she finds him? And can she overcome the part of her that she knows is still very much the Marsh King’s Daughter.
Helena has the self-sufficiency and outsider detachment of Steig Larsson’s Lisabeth Salander, without the latter’s anti-social tendencies – and black-and-white view of the world. Through Helena, Karen Dionne slips into the complicated grey areas of a child’s recollections. Using her character to explore the faulty narrator as a way of pulling out the complex relationships formed in the face of the ultimate model of family violence.
But this is also a meaty thriller. Dionne has done her research, drawing a believably herculean battle between woman and the wilderness – in the wilds of upper Michigan. As Helena moves into the wilds, away from the distractions of modern world, her story takes on the sense of the Hans Christian Anderson Fairytale it references. She is in a realm of dark tales and hidden traps. And within it she must battle her own heart of darkness to find a new sense of herself, where she has come from – and the person she might become.
A stunning, beautifully penned book that delivers all it promises. A highly recommended read and a great gateway book for those new to thrillers.