The Boatman’s Daughter by Andy Davidson
Titan Books, pb, £7.88
Reviewed by John C. Adams
This book had such an evocative cover that when my review copy arrived, I couldn’t wait to start reading. That’s a positive way to engage with a new author and gave a really great first impression.
Davidson was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel in 2017 and for the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s First Book Award in 2018. These two awards indicated a mix of the literary with horror, and I was interested to see whether this would be delivered by the book itself.
Davidson grew up in Arkansas, studied at the University of Mississippi and now lives in Georgia, so Southern Gothic speaks to his heritage and personal identity. This book falls squarely within that genre.
The Boatman’s Daughter of the title is Miranda Crabtree, whose father died some years earlier and who has since been supporting herself, an elderly witch and a mystery child left for dead by the river. Miranda does this by running dubious errands for the Preacher, who is a pretty dark character.
The tension for the story kicks up a notch when the Preacher’s demands escalate, precipitating the crisis that propels Miranda forward in a destruction of the uncomfortable but sustainable status quo she’s been living with ever since the night her father died. This aspect, producing a change to spur the narrative, was well handled, making it credible that everything had changed for her.
The locations were fascinating, and the river was a character in its own right. The style and subject matter reminded me of Dickens, a classic writer who I think would have loved the grubby, compromised world portrayed here. He knew what it was to struggle daily and be surrounded by those who eke out only the most precarious existence under terrible circumstances. Davidson’s writing also had a poetic quality that I loved.
My only surprise was that the voices of all the characters felt standard American rather than southern American. There wasn’t really any use of dialect, and the dialogue didn’t involve accents. These can be subtly delivered because too much of either can be an embarrassment of riches, and with the author’s life experience, I felt that this must surely have been possible.
Overall, this was an excellent tale. Miranda was brave and resilient, and I rooted for her throughout. In a milieu where everyone makes tough decisions daily, she held onto a moral compass that was entirely realistic in a survivor.
Review the reviewers! If you’ve read this novel or just have some thoughts on any point made in this review, tag me at @JohnCAdamsSF on Twitter to share them.