I finished reading Andy Davidson’s “The Boatman’s Daughter” in mid-March, but I’m already declaring it one of the best novels of 2020. And I’m not alone — it received rave reviews from Kirkus, NPR, and bestselling horror author Paul Tremblay, to name a few. Set deep in the Arkansas bayou, this page-turner defies categorization, incorporating horror, crime, mystery, Southern gothic, folklore, and everything in between. The swamp setting, choked with menace, magic, and beauty, provides a stifling sense of claustrophobia while drawing the reader deeper into the mystery.
The aforementioned daughter is Miranda Crabtree, who is first introduced to the reader as a girl of eleven. In the opening of the novel, Miranda endures a harrowing interlude that results in the death of her father but also the beginning of a strange new family. When the narrative continues, Miranda is a tough-as-nails young woman, operating her father’s small store and occasionally ferrying drugs across the bayou for some very unsavory characters. Miranda wants only to exist peacefully with her family and to find her father’s remains, but the way will not be easy.
The characters in “The Boatman’s Daughter” would fit right into a Flannery O’Connor novel; Miranda is joined by a mad preacher, a dwarf, brutal criminals, a boy with webbed hands and scales, a ghost, a witch, and a corrupt sheriff who embodies pure evil. Davidson skillfully captures the horrors surrounding Miranda, while at the same time showing the natural beauty of the bayou she loves.
The pacing of the novel is (I assume intentionally) inconsistent; it’s divided into six parts of unequal length, and picks up feverishly toward the end. The narrative switches between various characters’ points of view, and eventually every chapter ends with a cliffhanger, veering abruptly to another POV and another character in crisis. I found this narrative style a bit jarring, though it definitely keeps the reader in suspense. When the novel finally reaches its breathless conclusion, the ending (no spoilers!) is a satisfying one.
If you’re looking for something truly original in the horror genre, I highly recommend this brilliant and atmospheric Southern gothic novel. “The Boatman’s Daughter” would be perfect for a screen adaptation, so read it now and impress your friends when it inevitably winds up on HBO.(4.5 / 5)