‘My mother was famous, though she never wanted to be. Hers wasn’t the kind of fame anyone would wish for. Jaycee Dugard, Amanda Berry, Elizabeth Smart – that kind of thing, though my mother was none of them…’ This is the enticing opening of The Marsh King’s Daughter, both an enthralling, eerie and gut-wrenching thriller, and a stunning, poetic homage to the great outdoors.
Helena is the grown-up daughter of a woman who was kidnapped as a teenager, and kept captive. Similarly to that other great novel Room, she was ensnared by a man asking for help finding his dog, but rather than being kept in a purpose-built ‘room’ she was then taken to his isolated cabin in Michigan to be his ‘wife’, keep his home and bear him children, before she had even turned 16. The family lived as Ojibwe, a Native American tribe, even though, as Helena notes wryly, ‘imagine my surprise when I discovered the mother of the man I’d always thought of as Ojibwa was blonde and white.’
At the age of twelve, having had no contact with the outside world, Helena was eventually able to flee with her mother, and after a two year manhunt, her father was jailed for life. But now, he has escaped, and Helena knows that he’ll be coming for her. Now married with two children, having successfully kept her past hidden until now, she plans to capture him first. No one knows the great outdoors like Jacob Holbrook. No one will be best placed to evade capture, leaving misleading trails for the police. No one will be able to keep up with him – except possibly Helena. As she sets off after him, the story cuts back and forth between Helena tracking her father, and the story of her childhood, how she and her mother eventually escaped, and how she was thrust, painfully unprepared, into a totally unfamiliar new world.
As a child, Helena idolised her father, who taught her how to kill, how to survive and how to move around unseen and unheard. In many ways, the way Helena tells it, hers was an idyllic, outdoorsy upbringing for someone who knew no better. But even then, although she evidently idolised her father, darkness flashes through. His harsh discipline extends to smashing down on a bruised hand to teach her not to be so clumsy, and locking her in a well for days on end. Reflecting on the aftermath, Helena rationally knows that everything her father did was wrong, but reader is justifiably unconvinced that she’ll be able to go through with capturing him. On the kidnap and rape of her mother, she reasons, ‘He wanted a wife. No woman in her right mind would have joined him on that ridge. When you look at the situation from that point of view, what else was he supposed to do?‘
Denied even a name, her mother gets fairly short shrift in Helena’s tale. Helena sympathises with her mother, who died shortly before the book opened, having never been able get over her years of captivity, and often regrets not having been more understanding of her plight, but whilst her father features vividly in her story, her mother feels like a sad mouse of a character, unable to help her daughter, or defend herself from the horrifying situation in which she’s found herself. Helena often questions her mother’s version of events, asserting that she even was happy in spite of herself on occasion.
All suitably depressing stuff, but what lifts the story from a great thriller to an exceptional novel are the stunning details of the outdoors that Helena loves, from crunching through snow, to stalking deer, and even just watching crows blend in with the trees. The natural world is both uplifting, and terrifying, for although Helena loves it, and can use it her advantage, we know her father can too. Who will triumph in the inevitable reckoning?
A completely breathtaking thriller, both terrifyingly suspenseful, and beautifully atmospheric, which, oddly, really made me want to go camping… Many thanks the utterly fabulous Ella Bowman, for urgently pressing this memorable and original book into my hands!
The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne is published 29th June by Sphere.