Review: The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen Dionne

I found this book truly unsettling, finishing it feeling distinctly off colour.  It seeks to ally itself to novels such as Room or Forgetting Zoe but there was something about it that unnerved me even more than either of those.  While Room emphasises the redemptive power of the bond between Jack and Ma, something which has helped them both to survive a horrific trauma and then Forgetting Zoe suggests that the pain can be overcome and left behind, The Marsh King’s Daughter seems to have a darker message.  While noting that her mother’s story is generally listed alongside that of Amanda Berry and Jaycee Duggard, Helena is dismissive of her, barely names her, has little true loyalty.  Born two years into her mother’s captivity, Helena states that while other survivors note that the birth of their child was a source of comfort during their ordeal, the same was not true for the two of them.  Helena took after her father, loved him, hero-worshipped him and knew no other way of life.  Helena came into her world unaware of any other way of being – I think that what makes this so disturbing is that for so much of her childhood, she could not see the evil around her.

The narrative flicks back and forth between the adult and child Helena, with the adult having moved on, changed her name and severed all ties with her past.  She is married to Stephen, has two daughters and makes a living selling jam and jellies to local stores and fairs, this being one of the few skills she learnt growing up that was truly transferable.  All this is going well however until she overhears a bulletin on the radio that the Marsh King has escaped from custody and instinctively she knows that he will seek to reclaim her, seeing all that she has as his own.  But she does have an advantage over the law enforcement agencies who are hunting him – she knows how he works, how he hunts, how he kills and Helena is determined to use this against him.  Interspersed between Helena’s recollections of her childhood and her present-day pursuit of her father are snippets from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Marsh King’s Daughter, a fittingly dark fairy-tale which gave Helena’s father his name as coined by the media.

I was caught by the similarities in voice between Helena and Rosemary within We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, with the pair of them reminding me of a real-life account that I read a number of years ago which was written by a woman who had had a feral upbringing.  For both there is that feeling of the outsider, of observing the human race rather than truly being a part of it.  Helena feels offended when people told her afterwards that she must be so delighted to be in the real world.  What is so fascinating about television?  How is that better than life in the woods?  She had loved hunting, living by the land, learning the Native American ways that her father held so dear.  She had never longed for escape.  It was other circumstances that brought things crashing down and even now, her loyalties are clearly insecure, true allegiances unclear even to herself.

The psychology of Helena’s relationship with her father is fascinating – he was the defining force of her upbringing, the ultimate force of programming.  He has raised her with his own version of Native American mythology, with Helena astounded at his trial to see his blonde-haired mother watching from the stands.  Even all these years after the last time she saw him, Helena is still figuring out who he was, whether he truly loved her, what he wants from her now.  Having been brought up to see the world through his eyes, Helena replicated his contempt for her mother.  She knew that her mother’s word held no weight, that her commands could be disobeyed when it suited.  Dionne has created Helena as a true Electra, the girl who loves her father and despises her mother – how could someone raised to be fearless respect someone who has been ripped from their life, someone defeated, a girl who never got to become her own woman?

I think though that Dionne also captures the strange way that we look at victims – we need them to be strong, to be heroines, to have hated their predators and to have retained psychological integrity.  Helena’s mother was none of these things, she was a victim and she returned home as such, doomed to never quite grow up.  And when the twelve year-old Helena was told that her father had kidnapped her mother, she had shrugged because how else did someone get a wife?  What’s so wrong about kidnapping?  Even the adult Helena acknowledges that there was no way that her father could ever have found a woman willing to go and live with him in the marsh and that abduction was his only option.  The uncomfortable way that Helena inherited her father’s thought processes made her a protagonist who I shivered to be away from.

When girls like Jaycee Duggard, Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry or Gina Dejesus are rescued, society feels this terrible guilt for having failed to spot them, to have let their captors walk among them.  We need to believe that the escape marks a happy ending, that they will find redemption.  The Marsh King’s Daughter considers what happens next, of how you can escape someone physically but how their fingerprints can still be all over your mind.  Dionne has clearly worked hard to find her way into Helena’s way of thinking to imagine how she might operate as a mother herself, of how she could be both intelligent woman and still retain the inner savage who she lived as until she was twelve.  Her husband is loving, albeit still baffled by some of her quirks of behaviour but the detached way in which Helena seemed to observe him made it difficult to believe she truly cared for him.  Her decision to withhold the truth of her childhood was understandable but their relationship still felt under-explored.  The defining relationship in her life was the one she had with her father, even though it had been decades since she last saw him – how could there be room for a husband?  Helena has built herself a life with all the trappings of normality but whether contentment is within her reach is less clear.

Helena would no doubt bristle if someone labelled her as her father’s victim but that is what she was.  I cringed from the brutality of his punishments, unable to put the book down but longing for the end.  Dionne has created a complex and credible psychological realism but the depths of darkness which she reaches took me far beyond my comfort zone. The Marsh King’s Daughter does not rule out recovery – Helena has accepted intellectually that her mother tried her best to love her, but then emotionally she still can only feel the distance between them.  There are none of the moments of connection which made Room bearable and even at the end, I could only imagine Helena heading back into the wilderness alone, forever defined as the daughter of the Marsh King.




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I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

The Marsh King's Daughter by Karen Dionne
Published by Diversified Publishing on June 13th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Thrillers, Suspense, Crime, Psychological
Pages: 512
ISBN: 9781524778378

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