The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne

Nine stars

Karen Dionne develops this powerful novel that will pull the reader into an adventure like few others, injecting emotion and pure cunning into each chapter. Helena has a secret that she has been keeping for many years. She is the offspring of a kidnap victim and her captor. Helena has spent the first dozen years of her life living off the land, knowing nothing else. The isolation was something Helena suspected every child experienced, as she learned how to hunt, trap, and subsist without a lick of electricity. Now grown and having fled years in the past, her father sits in prison for his crimes, as the notoriety of the events has long since deflated. The reader learns of how Helena was forced to reinvent herself and acclimate to life in the world, surrounded by others with their social rules and expectation. She has a family of her own, but has not told them about her sensationalized upbringing in a similar community of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. When word comes out that her father has escaped prison, having killed two guards before fleeing into the woods, Helena has no choice but to tell her husband the truth. While he tries to waylay the shock he feels, Helena saddles him with the added news that she will not go into hiding with them, but has chosen to scour the woods for her father, in hopes of capturing him for the state troopers. What follows is a narrative that alternates between the present and Helena’s struggles to locate her father, who has taught her everything she knew about these woods, and flashbacks to her growing up in an isolated cabin, having no idea that she was a victim of a heinous crime. Dionne pushes both stories along and shows the slow revelation that Helena made as she came to realize that the man she idolized was nothing but a sadistic control freak. As Helena tries to find her father, the past and present collide, forcing her to play a deadly game of cat and mouse, where only one will survive. Trouble is, both parties are prepare to hunt the other until all that remains is a bleeding corpse. Brilliantly paced and presented, fans across the board will flock to this piece that explores epiphanies and slow maturation with just the right amount of thrill factor to keep the reader guessing.

Having never read any Karen Dionne previously, I was not sure what to expect. While reviews and ‘currently reading’ presence is strong for this book, I cannot always take the insights of others as my own. However, for the second novel in a row, I am pleased that I was pulled-in my the whirlpool of Goodreads popularity a novel has received. Dionne does an amazing job of using the blissful ignorance of young Helena to allow her to absorb all her father wants to teach her, only to turn the tables in the present-day manhunt that takes place to locate him. The reader can see growth in both incarnations of Helena, while also understanding the depth of her victimhood throughout the narrative. Dionne lays it all out on the table, allowing the reader to weigh in and determine if Helena was a victim or simply a product of her isolated upbringing. Adding numerous layers in the form of characters, real and imagined, the story takes on a new depth as the narrative bounced between both time periods. Dionne thickens the plot and the overall story by paralleling happenings in the novel with the fairy tale of the same name penned by Hans Christian Andersen many years before. Brilliant to be able to contrast and compare, as pieces of the tale appear to begin various chapters. The story has crumbs of uniqueness as well as the typical manhunt aspects, though the delivery is so flawless that the reader cannot help but feel drawn in until the final pages. Some will bemoan that the book is falsely labelled a thriller, but I think that if enough time is taken reflecting on the plot and the building narrative, it is clear that there are scores of thriller moments on which the reader can only posit where things will go next. Surely filled with research and dedication, Dionne has blown me away with the attention to detail in this piece. I cannot think of the last time I was so impressed by a story that is so simplistic and yet so complex at the same time.

Kudos, Madam Dionne for offering up this idea. I will have to find time to read more of your work, as you are both a wordsmith and master of slow and steady plot development.