The Wicked Sister, by Karen Dionne

Eight stars

Be sure to check for my review, first posted on Mystery and Suspense, as well as a number of other insightful comments by other reviewers.

After thoroughly enjoying one of her previous novels, I was pleased to get my hands on the latest work by Karen Dionne, which proves to be just as eerie. Telling a family’s story in two time periods, Dionne keeps the reader enthralled as pieces of the larger narrative slowly fall into place. Those who have enjoyed Dionne’s past work will not want to miss this one!

Fifteen years ago, Rachel Cunningham was locked away in a psychiatric facility. She murdered her parents at the age of eleven and refuses to allow herself any reprieve. The flashbacks are as vivid as ever and she refuses to talk about them with anyone else. When a reporter arrives to chat with her about telling the story, he explains that the evidence shows Rachel could not have committed the murders and that her self-imposed isolation can end if she wishes to sign herself out.

In a second narrative, two decades earlier, Jenny and Peter struggle with the death of a neighbourhood child who drowned in their pool. While their daughter, Diana, denies having anything to do with it, the evidence Jenny discovers says otherwise. Worried about the ongoing shaming that might occur, they reluctantly pack everything up and move into Peter’s family cabin, deep in the woods. There, Diana can thrive on her own, or so her parents hope. When Jenny reveals that she’s pregnant, she can only hope this change in the family will be best for everyone.

The new baby proves to be the polar opposite of Diana, something Jenny and Peter secretly enjoy. As Rachel grows, her sister is constantly pushing the limits and trying to harm her. Diana’s diagnosis as psychopathic makes it impossible to leave the girls alone, even for the shortest time. When Diana acts out once again, it is Rachel who reveals the truth to her parents, causing them to have to make a significant decision that is sure to make ripples throughout the entire Cunningham family.

As present day Rachel comes to terms with some of these suppressed memories, she encounters her sister once again. Rachel reveals what she knows about the day their parents died, leaving Diana to act in the only way she knows how. As the truth comes to the surface, wickedness receives its true name and a family is torn apart anew.

The story reads like a well-crafted psychological thriller with hints of evil throughout, as the title suggests. Karen Dionne creates a wonderful tale that works along parallel timelines, revealing just enough to keep the reader guessing, though keeping the pieces from falling into place until all is said and done.

Rachel Cunningham proved to be a worthy protagonist. Having locked herself away at a young age, she has no one but herself and the animal kingdom to keep her company, part of her upbringing in the woods. She seems enveloped in a mental fog, something that slowly reveals itself, only to create new chaos for her. Rachel remembers scraps her her life with Diana, though it is only when they reconnect that the truth begins to flow freely, which may not be the best thing for her.

Dionne’s use of strong secondary characters keeps the story moving, particularly as the other Cunninghams fill many of those roles. The reader can learn a little more about the strains that occur within the family, as Jenny serves to recount the flashback narrative, though it is Diana and her actions as far back as being nine that almost steal the show. Completely devoid of emotion, this child is a parent’s worst nightmare, as can be seen throughout the book.

While it took me a while to connect the two narratives, the plot thickens from the outset and the reader can surely forecast what is to come. In a story told through the eyes of Rachel and Jenny, there are many ‘aha’ moments in both the modern plot and that from years ago, when the parental murders took place. Dionne uses alternating chapters to tell of both time periods, forcing the reader to split their attention, though as things gain momentum, everything makes sense in both timelines. Chilling reveals throughout and the final face-off between Rachel and Diana offers the best of all the plot lines, with a twist at the end to tie it all together!

Kudos, Madam Dionne, for another winner. I cannot wait to see what else you might have in store for your fans.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

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.