The Marsh King's Daughter - Karen Dionne

4.5 stars


At first glance, Helena Pelletier seems like an average young woman juggling a busy life. Married to Stephen, mother of Iris & Mari & purveyor of homemade jellies & jams. But one look at the book blurb tells you she’s anything but.


Her mother was 13 years old when she was abducted by Jacob Holbrook & taken to a remote cabin in Michigan’s upper peninsula. At 16, she gave girth to Helena. Twelve years later, mother & daughter escaped & their story became an international sensation. In the years since, Helena worked hard to hide her identity & live a “normal” life. Well, it was nice while it lasted.


After 13 years in prison, Jacob escapes & disappears into the thick forests of a nearby national wildlife refuge. Helena’s carefully crafted world implodes & she realizes the only person capable of tracking him down is her. After all, she is the Marsh King’s daughter.


The book opens in the present as Helena prepares to hunt down her father. During her search, we get detailed flashbacks that give us the full story of life with Jacob from her first memories til the day she & her mother were found. In alternate passages throughout the book is a retelling of the classic fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen that gives the book its title & serves as an allegory of Helena’s journey.


This is a book that reels you in from page 1. Tense, layered, affecting, disturbing, honest, poignant…these are just some of the descriptors bouncing around in my head jostling for position & they all apply. It succeeds on many levels but if I had to pick one thing that ensured I kept turning the pages, it would be the main character. Unlike many books currently on the market, the author chose to go with one narrator. It’s a risky move. Her first person narrative is the lone voice in your head & if the reader doesn’t connect with or like her, it’s game over. Not only did I like her, she’s one of my favourite characters so far this year.


There are so many ways she could have been portrayed. The story revolves around difficult subject matter & could easily have descended into a version full of sensational, lurid detail with an emotional wreck as the MC. Thankfully, Ms. Dionne chose another route.


As Helena began to tell her story, I was immediately struck by her pragmatic, no-nonsense style of speech. There’s not a drop of drama queen in her veins & ironically, it’s this lack of histrionics that makes her delivery all the more believable & chilling. As she describes events from her childhood, you’re reminded that every kid thinks their life is normal because it’s all they know. By the time Helena learns the truth about her family, she’s had 12 formative years of guidance & attention from a man she idolizes. So it’s no wonder she still struggles with conflicting emotions as she tries to reconcile her 2 fathers. One taught her how to hunt & survive in the wilderness she loves. The other is a murdering rapist.


So by now you’re probably wondering why I left off half a star after babbling away about why this is such a great read. If I had to explain it to the author, it could be boiled down to this: it’s not you, it’s me. Right after Helena made the decision to search for Jacob, I settled in with a white knuckled grip on my kindle & waited for the chase to unfold. It’s during this section of the book that we get the history of her childhood in passages that are richly atmospheric & detailed. These have a slower pace that gives you a chance to get to know the characters & fully grasp the significance of events from those years. My problem is I’m an impatient reader & desperately wanted to know how the game of cat & mouse would play out in the present. So it’s purely a reflection of personal preference & many will find themselves caught up in the developing father/daughter relationship.


The style of prose makes for effortless reading & I bet you’ll find yourself chanting “just one more page” into the wee hours. In case some prospective readers are wondering, there are scenes of violence but no graphic sexual content.


Go on then, toss this on the TBR pile. The author is a gifted story teller & if this book doesn’t make you feel a dozen different emotions, you should immediately be checked for a heartbeat.