THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER by Karen Dionne
G.P. Putnam's Sons; 6/13/17
CBTB Rating: 3/5
The Verdict: unique & unusual, but missed the mark for me
THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER has one of the most compelling psychological thriller plots I've read in ages. I was so excited to dive into this story that blends psychological suspense with inspiration from a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale. Unfortunately, my reading experience didn't quite live up to my hopes for it. While I still wholeheartedly admire this book's ambitious premise and unique storytelling angle, a lack of character development and excessive flashbacks detracted from any suspense that might have developed, and left me unsatisfied.
At last, Helena Pelletier has the life she deserves. A loving husband, two beautiful daughters, a business that fills her days. Then she catches an emergency news announcement and realizes she was a fool to think she could ever leave her worst days behind her.
Helena 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. No electricity, no heat, no running water, not a single human beyond the three of them. Helena, born two years after the abduction, loved her home in nature—fishing, tracking, hunting. And despite her father’s odd temperament and sometimes brutal behavior, she loved him, too . . . until she learned precisely how savage a person 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 marshland he knows better than anyone else in the world. The police commence 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.
My feelings on this book were quite mixed, so let's start with the positives. THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER is a truly ambitious novel—it's no small task to write a suspense novel that is both its own compelling story and a successful quasi-retelling of a classic fairytale. I was wholly impressed by Karen Dionne's ability to weave the fairytale element into a modern suspense novel in a way that felt authentic. This angle felt fresh and intriguing—I loved the parallel fairytale excerpts sprinkled throughout the main narrative.
Where this book shines most is in Dionne's portrayal of the main character's mindset. Having grown up in captivity, yet unaware she was being held captive for much of her life, Helena's way of interacting with the world is - needless to say - quite complicated. Dionne sketches a character who is authentically uncomfortable with social customs: things like small talk and table manners escape her, and for good reason. Growing up on the marsh, the only rules she knew were those made by her father. Dionne's sensitive and thoughtful portrayal of how our main character struggles to integrate into and assimilate with modern American culture was truly compelling.
I also absolutely loved the subtle, thought-provoking ways Dionne reminds us just how traumatic and brutal Helena’s upbringing truly was. Our main character tends to look back on her childhood with fondness: even though she knows as an adult that her upbringing was wrong, her frame of reference for understanding her upbringing has been skewed by years spent under her father's thumb. Dionne drops little references to illustrate how cruel Helena’s father was—but they are all told through the lens of her childhood. Instances of her father's physical abuse or hyper-controlling behavior are slipped into our main character's recounting of her childhood as casually as you or I would mention the most ordinary activities. In flashbacks, Helena mentions repulsive behaviors in such a casual way that it takes the reader a moment to realize just how messed up these actions truly are. I loved this approach to storytelling—it prompts the reader to engage with the material and think over everything they read. It’s somehow even more unsettling to read about these violent and controlling behaviors through this lens: the lens of a survivor who has only recently begun to understand just how twisted her upbringing truly was.
Unfortunately, despite these fantastic storytelling elements, my overall experience reading THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER was lacking in real tension or drive. This book suffers from too much time spent in flashbacks—while it's totally fascinating to learn about our main character's childhood in captivity, so much time is devoted to these flashbacks that it undermines the development of any real tension in the present day. Where this book should deliver a really tense cat-and-mouse chase between father and daughter, the chase is really secondary to a detailed description of the main character's youth. That's all well and good for readers looking for that kind of reading material, but I had expected more suspense and tension from this story.
More than anything else, I was frustrated by a lack of character development in this story. Ironically, even though the majority of the book takes place in the past, the author never fully develops the character in this story who intrigued me the most: the villain, the main character's father. Helena’s father is a truly twisted character: a man who kidnapped a teenager, held her in captivity, and physically and sexually abused her for years. Helena’s relationship to this man is understandably complex, but I wish the author had delved even more into this bond, and into the man behind the cruel acts her father committed. There’s so much psychological substance here, and I wanted more from this piece of the story.
A majority of THE MARSH KING’S DAUGHTER takes place in flashbacks, and most of these flashbacks are focused on describing life in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The author does a fantastic job developing this atmosphere and painting a picture of life on the marsh: from hunting, foraging, and survival skills, she convincingly describes life on the UP. However, I was personally much less interested in these scenes of life on the marsh, and instead wished for more time spent fleshing out the psychological intrigues that this plot could provide.
Readers looking for a story with lots of outdoorsy reading material and less psychological suspense will enjoy THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER. The author does a great job creating atmosphere and writing a nuanced, sophisticated exploration of a survivor's mindset. However, readers hoping for richly-developed characters or a taut psychological suspense novel will be left wanting more. This book wasn't the best fit for me, but I do think readers with the right expectations will still enjoy it.
Discaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review. All opinions my own.
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons (June 13, 2017)
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