The Boatman’s Daughter begins with an epigraph, taken from line two hundred and forty-three of The Tempest. If what’s past is truly prologue, then Shakespeare’s play undoubtedly proves to be the genesis of Andy Davidson’s second novel. But displaced to the bayous of the Deep South, with a gloss of supernatural horror, this tale of power and betrayal undergoes its own transformation, a mutation that seems less the work of charms and baseless visions than of some rough, unhallowed magic.
Miranda Crabtree lives her life in the shadow of those who came before – from the mad preacher for whom she ferries illegal contraband, to her father, whose death hangs heavy on his daughter’s heart and memory as she undertakes the work that was once his, paying the debts that others have accrued over time. Her only joy comes in protecting an illicit, secret child hidden from the preacher and his followers, with the help of the witch Iskra. But as the bayou begins to shed its secrets, and the preacher tells Miranda that she will soon be undertaking her final run, multiple forces begin to close in on the life she, Iskra, and Littlefish have built together, including the grotesque figure of Charlie Riddle and a darker, even more sinister force beyond even the grasp of the preacher Billy Cotton and his band of followers. At the eye of the storm, Miranda must make a choice between her past and her future, between the devils she knows and the ones who bide their time in the bewitched depths of the bayou.
From the start, Davidson’s prose stands out for its eerie, dreamlike qualities. Much careful attention is given to building up a wild, almost apocalyptic landscape in which nature has begun its process of reclaiming much of the land. Thus the characters are situated, if not quite on a magical island, then within an environment that seems equally alienated from the modern world, if not more so. As an overwhelming, yet entirely apathetic force within the narrative, Davidson’s evocations of the natural world strengthen the story’s ties to its Shakespearean predecessor as well as drawing out its darker, more menacing aspects and contributing to the richly conjured setting of the southern marshlands.
Yet the overall narrative skews towards that of a supernatural thriller embellished with horror elements, a southern gothic tale adorned with anecdotes from Slavic folklore and the history of witchcraft. If there are scares to be found in these pages, they aren’t sudden or particularly shocking. Rather, they are infused into Davidson’ descriptions of the crumbling town with the Sabbath House at its heart, or implicit in the threat posed by Charlie Riddle, for example, or in the grotesque ritual magic enshrined within the mists rising from the Prosper river. The most harrowing – and gripping – scenes are those in which the mundane begins to blend morbidly with the supernatural, and in which Miranda faces these terrors alone.
To the Shakespeare reader, many of the characters will be recognisable: Miranda, Caliban, Sycorax are particularly pertinent, while the roles of Prospero, Ariel, and Antonio are parsed out differently among several characters. With characters such as Littlefish, in the role of Caliban, it feels as though their predecessors at times cast a longer shadow than the characters themselves. Although most of the players seem to exist in isolated states, with more time given to their introspections and personal perspectives than to scenes of dialogue and interaction, the dynamic between Miranda and Iskra is the most compelling, perhaps the most under-explored. But Miranda’s relationship with her father is the one that underpins much of the story, the obscure, tragic history that forms the prologue to Miranda’s own tale of growing to love and care for her adopted brother. And what makes the moments of gore and horror more poignant is this emotional underpinning, the sense of repressed grief that hangs over not only Miranda but also those around her. There’s a certain morbid nostalgia to Billy Cotton’s obsession with his dead wife’s tomb, in John Avery’s fading faith and in Iskra’s painful regrets. But if there’s one thing that runs strong throughout The Boatman’s Daughter it’s the theme of the sinister aspects of nostalgia, of old histories unearthed by the present, and the fear that our own personal histories may not always have been as we remember them.
If there are moments during The Boatman’s Daughter in which the magic sometimes feels jarringly at odds with the wider world and plot, then it’s the carefully crafted prose and the atmospheric setting that carries the story along. It may not be the future the Bard imagined for his penultimate work, but it’s one that makes for an enjoyable and surprisingly natural elaboration on the original, a thing of darkness that, like others of its kind, will insist on being acknowledged.
The Boatman’s Daughter by Andy Davidson is published by Titan Books.