The Marsh King's Daughter - Karen Dionne
The Marsh King's Daughter - Karen Dionne *****
The book's title is from a story by Hans Christian Andersen, but the reality of being the Marsh King's Daughter is anything but a fairy-tale for Helena Eriksson. As a child, Helena lived the first 12 years of her life in a remote cabin in Upper Peninsula of Michigan, unaware that her mother is actually a prisoner, kidnapped when she was a 14 year old child by Jacob Holbrook, the man she knows only as her father. Twelve years in captivity in the wilderness - not even knowing that it was captivity - has been hard, but not as hard as adjusting to a normal life with other people and with the press interest when Helena and her mother finally manage to escape from the clutches of the man who would become known as the Marsh King.
There's a whole other story in there about growing up in the wilderness, completely isolated from normal society and having to learn to adapt to the culture shock of a whole other unfamiliar and unsettling way of life. There's also more uncomfortable questions that someone in Helena's position would have to face coming to the realisation that she has been a victim of abuse; something that is likely to have had a profound impact on her ability to process the experience All these questions are interesting but perhaps of only academic interest. What matters is who Helena is now and that's a complicated question that Helena herself undoubtedly hasn't yet come to terms with.
All those important considerations have to be put aside at the start of The Marsh King's Daughter because Helena has a more urgent and immediate problem to deal with than questions of identity, and that's because Jacob Holbrook, her father, has escaped from prison, killing two guards and making his way back to the familiar territory of the marshes of the UP. If there's one set of life skills that Helena has gained from her uncommon childhood, it's her knowledge of the nature of her surroundings, and her abilities for hunting, fishing and tracking. If anyone is capable tracking and hunting down her father, it's the Marsh King's daughter. Helena thinks she should have the advantage, particularly as her father has spent the last 13 years locked up while she has had more time to familiarise herself with the ever-changing landscape, but she suspects that it's not going to be easy to be sure who is the hunter and who is being hunted.
Still, it seems a bit negligent to skip over this material and somewhat inappropriate to use this emotive subject as background for what looks to be nothing much more than a chase thriller. Although a certain amount of background detail is revealed, most of it obviously relates to Helena's captivity as a child on the marshes. There's scarcely any real detail provided on the journey she has had to rebuild her life or how she copes in her marriage to Steve with their own two children. There's good reason for this, since her family know nothing of her past, but it still feels like you are missing a vital part of understanding who Helena is. Which is probably also intentional because there is a part to Helena that she herself can't acknowledge until she addresses the unfinished business, and that means coming to terms with the complex feelings she still has for her father. Hunting him down in the wilderness in the winter months is perhaps not the ideal way of working out where she stands in relation her father - and the question of whether she is capable of shooting or capturing him is probably also something she won't know until the moment arises - but then their relationship has never been a conventional one.
Dionne's writing is so precise and focussed on this tense situation, with interesting parallels developed between it and the Hans Christian Andersen story, that The Marsh King's Daughter seems fairly straightforward, but there's considerably more to the book that seeps through without you almost being fully conscious of it. It's about nature and human nature. It all centres around an unnatural criminal act and has an unnatural hunt as its driver, but through this novel draws the focus back on some basic questions relating to human need and survival. Having learned the hard way, Helena is in a unique place to consider what human needs are important and which take precedence over everything else, and she can only do that by acknowledging and coming to terms with the past, which is entirely embodied in and inseparable from her father. And from her surroundings. Karen Dionne's beautiful descriptions of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan show just how important and conjoined the two are, and it's fascinating to follow how Helena attempts to strike that balance between family and nature and natural justice.
The Marsh King's Daughter by Karen Dionne is published by Sphere in June 2017