Saturday, June 3, 2017


THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER by Karen Dionne (GP Putnam's Sons, 13 June 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

When a notorious child abductor - known as the Marsh King - escapes from a maximum security prison, Helena immediately suspects that she and her two young daughters are in danger. No one, not even her husband, knows the truth about Helena's past: they don't know that she was born into captivity, that she had no contact with the outside world before the age of twelve - or that her father raised her to be a killer. And they don't know that the Marsh King can survive and hunt in the wilderness better than anyone... except, perhaps his own daughter.

I've seen a lot of pre-release hype about this book, which isn't always a good thing. Fortunately, Dionne's new novel delivers: it is an engaging, propulsive tale that could certainly be a breakthrough book for her (she has written five other crime novels, including two TV drama tie-ins). 

While I don’t think it quite rises to all the ‘suspense thriller of the year’ pre-release fanfare (I've already read a couple of books this year that I'd rank ahead of it), it is a really great read that I thoroughly enjoyed, found incredibly difficult to put down, and would highly recommend. 

Helena lives a simple country life in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, selling handcrafted jams made from wild ingredients, and living on land her grandparents once owned, with her husband Stephen, young daughters Iris and Mari, and their dog Rambo. All of that's upturned when an infamous convict escapes, slaughtering two prison guards in the process

Almost three decades ago, 'The Marsh King' snatched a fourteen-year-old girl and took her to a remote cabin in the marshlands, keeping her in captivity as his wife. Helena is the daughter of that abducted girl, and the daughter of the Marsh King. She was raised in the wild, learning not only to fish and hunt, but how to track, how to gut, skin, and tan deer hides, and more. In many ways she loves the man who raised her, who'd kept her apart from the world but taught her to love the outdoors and be able to survive in the wilderness. Who told her stories from their Ojibwa culture. 

As law enforcement launches a manhunt, Helena knows her father, with all his survivalist skills and tracking abilities, will simply disappear into the wilderness, if that's what he wants. But what does he want? This loving and cruel man who raised her, both a mentor and a narcissistic bully. 

Helena realises she may be the only one who can find him, using the very skills he taught her. 

This is a thoroughly engaging read that's quite different to most of the crime fiction out there, both for its depiction of 'live off the land' life, and the fairy tale themes running throughout. THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER is largely told in flashback, revealing Helena’s life growing up isolated from civilization, while interspersing snatches of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of the same name.

As Helena hunts her father in the present and reminisces on her past, Dionne superbly captures the mixed emotions, the love and hate. How people are never just one thing. She keeps the pages whirring through a creeping sense of unease bubbling beneath day-to-day life in the isolated cabin. 

For me, having grown up in an outdoorsy part of the world as a keen hiker of surrounding national parks, the scenes of hunting and basic life in the wild are particularly evocative. Dionne takes us deep into aspects of life that most readers will have little knowledge of, while never overwhelming with too much information (although some readers may find scenes relating to hunting etc tough). 

There's plenty of darkness in this tale - how could there not be when it deals with child abduction, people living in captivity and deprivation? - but also light. THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER flies along, but also makes you ponder. An exquisitely crafted tale that builds to a thrilling denouement. 

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes for  magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at arts and literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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