This is a contender for the best book I’ve read this year. Five stars, the works. But before I talk about The Marsh King’s Daughter, I’m going to tell a story about its author, Karen Dionne.
In July I attended ThrillerFest in New York, which serves as an industry party, sifter of talent, incubator of potential bestsellers, and launchpad of careers.
Dionne was one of the stars that week; one of the year’s darlings. People kept mentioning The Marsh King’s Daughter.
On the final day of the event, I got to sit on a panel of writers and editors, which entitled me to join the book signing that afternoon. They seat the authors alphabetically, so right after DiBiasio came Dionne. So I sat next to this kindly, white-haired gal from Detroit.
It was her time. Her book had just been published, the reviews were great, it was selling, and she’d have to do a speedy turnaround from Detroit because a radio station in London was flying her in for an interview. She received a steady drip of people who had just bought her book, many of them fellow authors. (The community is an important means of generating early buzz.)
We chatted a bit. She asked about my work. But mostly I asked her about her success. She deserved this moment, and I was glad for her. The Marsh King’s Daughter was her fourth book, I think, and the others had sank into oblivion. But this one had finally made it, and she was enjoying it – as she should, because only authors know what it’s like to struggle in this business.
I eventually downloaded it, and was hooked from the get-go. I review a lot of thrillers on this site. I mostly write about books that I like, but I will point out anything I didn’t care for. The Marsh King’s Daughter was flawless and complete. It was enormously satisfying. It was also a gripping read.
The story hops between the past and the present, like a pair of serpents twinning into a dangerous outcome. The protagonist is Helena. Her mother was abducted by a man who fancied himself an Indian survivor, above the white man’s (or any man’s) law. He takes the young girl into the marshes of remotest Upper Michigan, rapes her, forces her into submissive domesticity. Helena is the daughter.
Dionne was astute enough to realize that a girl born into this lonely world would love her father. He teaches her everything she needs to know to survive off the land. She becomes an expert hunter, tracker, woodsman, craftsman.
But she also comes to realize her father is cruel – and eventually that he is a psychopath.
Meanwhile, in the chapters taking place in the present, Helena has found her way in modern civilization, with a husband and a family, and she learns that her father has escaped prison, murdering people on the way. She decides that the police will never find her father, and that the only way to get him back behind bars is to track him down herself.
Dionne also links the narrative to a fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson, which she discovered after having started writing the book. A lucky find, put to use with skill. It also gave her the title for her novel.
To call The Marsh King’s Daughter a thriller true but irrelevant. You could call it a psychological mystery, or a suspense story. Or you could call it literature, full stop. Or just say it’s an engrossing read. It transcends the genre.
This book has it all: a fascinating protagonist, a world that is strange and yet unveiled in full flower, a frightening story, a heart. Other writers have come up with clever ideas, tense situations, fast-paced explorations of the human condition. Dionne pulls it all together in plainspoken, Midwestern aplomb. Read it. You’ll enjoy it.