Andy Davidson’s new book, The Boatman’s Daughter, has been lurking on my bookshelf for far too long. I preordered this book, but the time to crack it open and explore its pages didn’t seem right until it demanded that I commit to it. Davidson’s sophomore effort echoes his first book in all the right ways. If you haven’t read his first book, do yourself a favor and check out In the Valley of the Sun, a neo-Western vampire thriller that’s unexpectedly poetic and disturbingly beautiful. His newest book takes us down to the bayous of Arkansas, in which a young woman must protect her adopted brother from his murderous father and a swamp full of monsters.
Miranda Crabtree runs a general store on a bayou in Arkansas that she inherited from her father along with a johnboat and a love of bow-hunting. She frequently takes the boat down the bayou where she looks after her Baba, an old crone, and Littlefish, a strange boy with webbed hands and feet. Miranda must protect Littlefish from Billy Cotton, a southern gothic archetype creepy preacher who sells “dope” using his church as a front, and Charlie Riddle, a corrupt lawman who abuses women habitually. Billy, Littlefish’s father, tried to kill him at birth, and all Miranda knows is that the only one who died the night of Littlefish’s birth was her father, who had brought Baba to Cotton’s church to act as a midwife.
There is magic in the setting, the thick forests of Arkansas that are as convoluted and grotesque as the players of this drama. It’s easy to get lost in the black waters of the river and heavy growths of vines, which highlights all the oddities of the stylized cast. Sometimes it can be a bit much, like Charlie Riddle, who is missing an eye and morbidly fat, often described as “giant,” to boot. Peripheral characters squeeze out the sides of a book this weird, including an ominous drug dealer known confusingly only as “the giant” who alone escapes Miranda’s frontier justice. But that spare naming of character is half the appeal of the whole genre of Southern gothic. Miranda is, most of the time, “the boatman’s daughter,” Billy, “the preacher,” Littlefish, “the boy,” and so forth, as though they are but pieces acting to the wills of the gods and demons they always seem to be talking to themselves about.
By the end of the ride, a massive swamp god does rear its viny head, but it’s not entirely clear why it never intervenes more fully to save our heroes. As lush and filled out as the setting might be, it remains frustratingly murky and unwilling to divulge more than it has to about the thousand questions that surround this curious story. That weirdness and questionability seems to be exactly the point and most of the draw. Fans of the first season of True Detective will love staring into this abyss for four hundred pages, but a little complexity and relatability in the characters could only better hook readers and draw them through it’s muddy plot.
Three stars out of five.
Favorite quote: “Her mind comprehended it dimly, this thing, impossibly tall – taller than the trees that surrounded the bog, a dark writhing column – yet somehow human in shape, possessed of a torso of glistening green and blue like the iridescent carapace of a horned beetle.”