Friday, November 23, 2018

The Marsh King's Daughter by Karen Dionne

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. This book is definitely one of those. 

The author (who I might add, is an acquaintance of a friend of mine), drew inspiration from two sources. The first is the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Bog King’s Daughter, which is quoted at the beginning of each chapter. The other is the recent cases wherein a young woman or girl was kidnapped, and kept as a sex slave/concubine by a man determined to have his dream spouse/slave. Say, Elizabeth Smart, or, even more to the point, Jaycee Dugard.

The premise of The Marsh King’s Daughter is thus: the narrator is the daughter of a kidnapped girl and her kidnapper. She was born and raised out in an abandoned cabin in a swamp in Michigan’s upper peninsula. Eventually, as a teen, she becomes aware of the outside world. After an outsider stumbles upon them, and is tortured by the narrator’s father, she takes her mother and escapes. Years later, after her father kills two prison guards and escapes, she has to track him down and prevent him from trying to repeat the experiment with her own children.

So, basically, in the “thriller” genre. However, I found it to be well written, and an interesting read. In particular, the psychology of the connection that the narrator has with her parents is fascinating, and all too realistic. The narrator has grown up with only her parents as human contact. She is temperamentally more similar to her father - although she obviously lacks his narcissism - and her mother never really bonds with her. Her mother is also so damaged by her trauma that it doesn’t appear she is able to move beyond it at function at much of any level, let alone an adult one.

The father, on the other hand, is “functional” in the sense that he is able to live his life as he wants, and stay alive. But he is incapable of actual love. Everything is about him, and people are mere objects to be manipulated to meet his goals.

Obviously, this makes for some problems for the narrator. She loves her father, even if he doesn’t love her in any real way. She has a bond, even though she knows he is evil and dangerous. She does what she has to in the end, but she nearly waits too long, waiting for that final sign of his approval.

This led to a rather interesting discussion with my wife. She is less emotional and sentimental than I am, and has blood of ice in a crisis. For her, she was frustrated by the protagonist, because she would have just killed him far earlier. (By the way, I totally believe her on this. She is a good, compassionate person, but she is also an ICU nurse, and deals with death every day. She would kill to protect herself or her family without a second thought. It would be harder for me.) I, on the other hand, totally understood the protagonist’s agony. I could understand her bond with her father, horrid as he was, and the reason why she struggled over cutting him off. I think this is one of the strengths of the book: the discussion of motives, emotions, and the difficulties of these relationships really brought out the personalities of all of us.

The book is written in an interesting format. The narrator/protagonist alternates between the present (he father has escaped and is coming for her), and the past - telling the story of her experiences. This required a very careful plotting to be sure that secrets were not revealed until their due time. We are on edge over the present story, while burning with curiosity over her past. A certain number of key experiences are teased, but not actually revealed until near the end. I appreciated the work that went into the pacing and the careful reveals.

One of our book club members lived in the area the book was set, and confirmed that he felt he was back in his old haunts. Me, not so much in that sense, but I also, as an outdoor enthusiast, felt that the writing was well informed.

There was a lot more that we discussed - I wish I could remember all of it. I am writing this after a vacation followed by a strenuous hike, so the lapse of time and a bit of fatigue is probably making me forget stuff that I will remember a week from now and slap my head. Oh well. It is an intriguing book, and a worthy read. I’m not really a genre fiction guy, so take that as a complement. And give the book a chance.  

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