After History of Wolves I wanted a little Booker break, and I had Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter in my library pile. I enjoyed this thriller but it was exactly the wrong choice of palate cleanser after Wolves, because they share many elements–it made for an interesting comparison, though.
Despite the title, this isn’t really a Girl on the Train/Gone Girl kind of domestic thriller, though parts of it are certainly and oddly domestic. The Marsh King is the name the press gives narrator Helena’s father, who kidnapped her 14-year-old mother and held her captive for 15 years. Helena grew up in their isolated cabin in the marshes, adoring her father and her wild life, only gradually becoming aware that there is something wrong.
I’ve never read (or watched) Room or memoirs by girls who were held captive, and if this book had dwelt on the darkest sides of that experience, I don’t think I would have read it either. But it doesn’t–as Helena says, it’s her story, not her mother’s, and while the psychological effects of her origins are clear, and eventually some horrific things happen, Dionne moves briskly along and doesn’t engage in torture porn as these kinds of thrillers sometimes do.
That might be a short-coming: the book doesn’t have the emotional punch it might, and I was never sure whether Helena’s rather detached narration was a result of her experiences or a weakness of Dionne’s writing.
Like History of Wolves, this book cuts back and forth in time, but Dionne uses this structure effectively, as suspense builds in both timelines. In the past, we come to understand Helena’s feelings for both parents, and since we know something is going to push her to escape the marsh, tension builds as we get closer to that event. In the present-day timeline, Helena’s father has escaped from prison, and she knows she’s the only one who can track him, using all the skills she learned from him in childhood.
It’s understandable that young Helena would idolize her father, who takes her on adventures, and dismiss her mother, passively surviving captivity and bound to the dull routines of “women’s work.” While adult Helena says the right things (my father was a bad man, a narcissist, a psychopath), they sound more like words learned from therapists than things she believes. By the end of the book, I thought she felt their truth more deeply–but she still loves her father, and that complexity of emotion is part of the book’s interest.
This isn’t a perfect thriller; the climaxes, especially in the present timeline, are rather hasty and anti-climactic. There could have been less time on the happy childhood in the marsh and more on those final dramatic scenes. I think the character development could have been deeper, more emotional, but if it had been, The Marsh King’s Daughter wouldn’t have been the escape I was looking for. What struck me most about reading this back to back with History of Wolves was seeing Dionne use similar elements as Fridlund—the strange, isolated childhood, the dual timelines, the foreshadowing–but building suspense from them far more adeptly. Plenty of literary writers could stand to learn a trick or two from genre’s bag.