Psycho Dads: A Comparative Book Review of “My Absolute Darling” and “The Marsh King’s Daughter”

Warner bros the shining

One of the scariest psycho dads of all time: Jack from “The Shining.” My post is not about him, but it is about psycho dads. Image by Warner Bros.

Fathers. They can have a profound impact on their daughters’ lives. Unfortunately, the two daughters in these books hit the jackpot when it comes to living in a family headed by psycho dads. Both books make for compelling, disturbing reads.

I read them back-to-back by happenstance. I was lured into “My Absolute Darling” by an intriguing and glowing New York Times book review. Alas, judging from all the complaints on Goodreads, I wasn’t the only one misled by the review, which glosses over the nasty bits about incest and the fact that THE DOG DIES in it. (I hate books where the dog dies, especially when scavengers pull its intestines out of its anus afterward.)

Instead, the review focused on positive comments by other writers, including Stephen King, and the author Gabriel Tallent’s background (this is his first novel).

The unfortunate daughter in “Absolute” is Turtle, a young teen living in the woods of northern California with her dad. Her mother died when she was young, leaving her at the mercy of her father who has an inordinate fondness for guns, and a paranoia about societal collapse. Turtle eats raw eggs for breakfast and wears combat boots to school. Her only friends are her grandfather, who lives in a trailer home next door, and a teacher who sees the signs of abuse and tries to help.

Later, Turtle befriends Jacob and Brett, two boys near her age who are lost in the woods. These well-read surfer dudes provide a foil for Turtle’s dark story, and are the catalyst for her father’s abuse to escalate.

The story of Turtle’s escape from her father is often profane, violent, heartbreaking, frustrating, stark and sometimes funny. On Goodreads, I rated the book 3/5 stars, mainly because some of the violence felt unnecessarily exploitive.

I read “The Marsh King’s Daughter” at the recommendation of my book group and because it’s set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – not far from my stomping grounds. The unfortunate daughter in this story is Helena. Her father kidnapped her mother when she was young and brought her into a remote marsh in the wilds of the U.P. Born in the marsh, Helena grows up in blissful ignorance of her true situation because her family is so isolated from the outside world.

Like Turtle, Helena is at home in the woods. Her father has taught her well how to survive and track animals. These descriptions are especially vivid and believable, as are the scenes of Helena’s eventual escape from the marsh.

The abuse in “Marsh King” is tamer than that in “Absolute.” Another thing that puts readers at more of a distance is that the story is told in retrospective. Helena is grown and out of the marsh, with a family of her own when she begins relating the tale. Even when the action is in the present, Helena is prone to bouts of rumination and repetition that slow down the action. There was so much of this in the climax scene where she has a death match with her father that I could hardly tell it was taking place in the present. But the story hooked me enough that I kept reading.

Another scene that stuck in my reader’s craw, however, was the one where Helena’s father tries to drown her mother in punishment for what he thinks is an escape attempt. Helena’s mother is canoeing alone across a lake (to search for strawberries on the other side) – something she is apparently forbidden to do. The father comes home and asks Helena where her mother is. Helena points to her mother who is out in the canoe. Somehow (I don’t recall exactly and no longer have the book to refer to), the father reaches the mother in the canoe and manhandles her out of it. To punish her, he almost drowns her. But does he do it in the lake where there’s plenty of available water? No. He drags her up to the porch, gets a bucket full of water and does it there. That just seems inefficient and weird to me, even for a psycho dad.

I gave “Marsh King” a higher rating on Goodreads (4/5 stars) than “Absolute” because the violence seemed less exploitive. I would have given it an even higher rating but for the rumination/repetition issues and the near-drowning scene.

Neither book dwells on how the fathers became psycho. They just deal with how the fathers’ actions impact their families.

In both books [spoiler alert!] the daughters triumph over their fathers both physically and emotionally. So if you want to read a book about “girl power” these are for you.

3 thoughts on “Psycho Dads: A Comparative Book Review of “My Absolute Darling” and “The Marsh King’s Daughter”

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