Sphere | 2017 (29 June) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book
Helena is known to the fascinated media of the world as ‘The Marsh King’s Daughter’. Her father kidnapped her mother, then a young girl aged about fourteen years old, and stole her away to a life of deprivation, slavery and rape on an unvisited island in the marshy swamps of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, close to the border with Canada. Helena was born a couple of years later and, from then until her rescue many years later, the child had to learn the behaviour that would mean her father wouldn’t kill her. But Helena cannot change the horrific circumstances of her conception and birth – her existence – and this man is still her father just as the other person in this isolated Godforsaken trinity, a young, terrified and subdued woman, is her mother.
Helena is now a married woman with two children of her own. She’s still trying to survive, to do what’s right, conscious that she’s different, when her life is once more thrown into turmoil. Her father has escaped from prison, leaving a trail of murder behind him. Helena knows that he will head into the marsh and that once there only one person will be able to find him – the daughter he trained to be just like him. But just how similar is she?
On the surface The Marsh King’s Daughter tells of the manhunt for a criminal from the most unusual angle of the woman who pursues him – his daughter. But there is much more to this powerful and gripping novel than that. It presents an astonishing portrait of a corrupted childhood told in Helena’s own words as she reflects on her past and on her complicated relationships with her mother and father. It is absolutely engrossing. For much of the novel we don’t see beyond the limits of this small island in the swamp. We follow Helena’s train of thought as she recalls the most vivid memories of her childhood, all of which are dominated by a sadistic father and, to a much lesser extent, a cowered mother. But Helena knew no different and grows up loving her father, who teaches her to hunt and fish, much more than her mother who can’t leave the immediate area of their cabin or will have her arms broken.
Karen Dionne tells a fascinating tale of Helena’s growth from childhood to young adulthood, from ignorance to knowledge, all set within the frozen world of the marsh, which is wonderfully described. It’s a harsh environment, made even more so by Helena’s father. But we only see glimpses of his behaviour a little at a time and there are moments when we are jolted by things that we learn, as Helena’s eyes are opened. For a time, though, as the father tells his daughter stories of myth and folklore, there is something of the fairytale about this island in the marshes.
While the relationship between Helena and her father is central to the novel, both in its past and present strands, one cannot forget the destroyed presence of Helena’s mother and it is the mother who occupied my mind as I read the book. It’s a chilling study of a stolen woman.
Helena is a fascinating narrator. She can be unreliable at times but she has the perfect excuse – she grew up without any terms of normal reference. She is altered by her origins and also by the behaviour of her father and mother. She doesn’t see the world in the usual way and I found myself thoroughly immersed in her growing understanding and coping. Helena can be hard to empathise with. Her relationships with animals, her family and children aren’t conventional. But she’s doing her best.
The figure of the father hangs over the entire novel as a great force of evil and power. But his portrait is drawn with great skill. It’s complex and layered. It’s not easy for the reader to view him with anything but the most evolved repugnance and yet Karen Dionne also allows us to see him through the eyes of his child, not just through the terrified eyes of his stolen wife. This beautifully-written novel is powerful indeed, moving between just a small group of people all within the eerie hostile marsh, and it will stay with me for quite a time. Karen Dionne is to be congratulated for this astonishing novel, a standout thriller of the year for certain.