The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

‘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.

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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.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

I’ve had Anne Tyler on my list to read for years. One of the American greats, I’ve heard her praised for her spare, yet warm and funny portrayals of family life, of secrets and stories and shared history. If this is what I’ve been missing, it seems I have a backlist to explore. 


A Spool of Blue Thread follows the Whitshank family through four generations, from Junior and Linnie Mae Whitshank, who moved to Baltimore in the 1920s, their children Merrick and Red, Red and his wife Abby, their own four children and their various grandchildren. Much of it takes place in the beautiful Baltimore house that Junior painstakingly built for another family, and then bided his time until he was able to move in – one of the two main family stories that is passed down. The second one, delivered immediately afterwards, of Merrick’s marriage, casts a slightly darker light on Junior’s quest for perfection.

Abby and Red are now in their seventies, and the familiar question of caring for them has arisen. A decision is made, to Red and Abby’s sorrow, and which puts the prodigal son Denny’s nose out of joint. Denny is the wayward one, the son who ate up all of Red and Abby’s attention as a child, much to his siblings’ enduring resentment, and yet for whom nothing ever seemed quite enough.

It’s quite hard to review A Spool of Blue Thread. A quietly gripping family saga, its strengths lie in its graceful writing, and its perceptive yet comforting exploration of family life. It’s enthralling without being obviously so. Anne Tyler is prone to authorial comment, which brings the Whitshank family out beyond the pages – in the second chapter, she describes them as being ‘like most families, they believed they were special.’ It’s a comment which converts warmth, wit as well as fondness for her characters, as well as giving the reader a nudge, as though to warn us against judging the characters too harshly. Although they can exasperate, it’s hard not to empathise with them, even in Denny’s most irritating moments. The mixed joy of spending time with relatives is extremely well-captured, from the gentle domesticity in which everyone finds their well-trod place at family gatherings, but also the claustrophobia, the feeling of regressing to childhood, and the need to get away from them. 

But it’s not an uneventful book – it’s just that the twists are delivered so calmly, that you almost feel you knew all along that one of the Whitshank children was adopted in slightly shady circumstances, that the love story the book hinges on was not all it seemed. Though Junior’s patience in waiting for his turn to move into the dream house he built comes across as ‘the Whitshank way’, it is gradually exposed as part of his desire to leave his roots behind, and reveals a deeply controlling side to him. 

I finished A Spool of Blue Thread feeling that it slightly disproves Tolstoy’s well-known maxim that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Whitshanks aren’t unhappy. They’re nice, normal, funny, tragic, silly people doing their best by each other – not always succeeding, but trying. Some are more sympathetic than others, but the writing effortlessly sucks you in, and you care as much for this nice normal family as you would for anyone facing various degrees of unhappiness. 

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler is out now, published by Vintage.