To law enforcement and the world, Jacob Halbrook is a kidnapper and a rapist, but to Helena Pelletier he is simply “father.” In The Marsh King’s Daughter, the new novel by Karen Dionne, the complexity of this familial relationship is examined over the course of time and in doing so, Dionne has written one of the most wholly satisfying thrillers of the year.
When The Marsh King’s Daughter begins, Helena is living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with her husband and two daughters. Their homestead once belonged to her paternal grandparents; however, Helena has never revealed her past to her loving husband. But one day, when her father escapes from prison, Helena must confess to being the infamous offspring of this societal monster. At the risk of alienating her family, Helena knows that she must be the one to hunt down Jacob.
When Helena was a child, Jacob taught her everything he knew about marsh living. The eco-system of the Upper Peninsula is a unique one, and with this knowledge, Helena is confident she can track her father’s movements as he attempts to evade capture.
Alternating chapters between past and present, Dionne documents how Helena came to be where she is. The product of her mother’s rape after being kidnapped as a young teenager, Helena grew up with no contact with the outside world. The marsh was all she knew. While it is hard to imagine, Karen Dionne does an excellent job of getting readers to understand this isolation. To such an extent that it is easy to grasp that this is a compelling case for the notion that if you don’t know any different, you don’t know any better. Helena loves her father and mother and can’t understand why there is tension just under the surface of their interactions. Nor does she understand that Jacob’s moments of violence and sadism are not normal.
Not since Emma Donohue’s Room has an author so skillfully rendered the inner workings of a trauma victim’s mind – except that in The Marsh King’s Daughter, readers gain access no only to the childhood mindset, but also to the damaged psyche of the survivor as she grows to adulthood.
This is a good point to note that The Marsh King’s Daughter contains some heavy subject matter, disturbing moments, and potential triggers – but all of this is handled with grace and sensitivity by the author. Like the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale that forms its backbone, The Marsh King’s Daughter never shies away from the ugliness of humanity. By juxtaposing this with the beauty of the natural world, Karen Dionne creates a type of written “weighing scale” – always in balance but never far from complete collapse and catastrophe.
Helena’s hunt through the marsh is like a meditation on her history, her lineage. Flashbacks seamlessly weave in and out of the dramatic action of tracking her father’s escape route. Until eventually, the search transforms into a game of cat and mouse – with neither party knowing which role they are in enacting.
With pitch perfect pacing and emotional heft, The Marsh King’s Daughter will satisfy readers of both domestic suspense and traditional thrillers. Karen Dionne’s authentic depiction of marsh living is both fascinating and enlightening, but it is the examination of the difficult relationships between children and parents that will resonate the longest in reader’s minds.
Disclaimer: Both a print galley and e-galley of this title were provided to BOLO Books by the publisher. No review was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.