Andy Davidson probably wrote The Boatman's Daughter sitting at a table at home or at a coffee joint. But it reads as if he pulled it out of the wet earth of the Arkansas bayous with his bare hands on a moonless night while chanting an incantation he learned from a dying witch.
Miranda Crabtree is a young girl whose father was killed when she was a child. She works for local criminals in Arkansas, moving drugs up and down the river in the middle of the night to sustain herself, the old witch she lives with, and the secret child with webbed hands and scaly skin that some people want dead. Her life is tough, but she's used to it. Unfortunately, things are changing: Strange men are taking over the drug business and dark supernatural forces are creeping into Miranda's life. Then she receives a severed head in a Styrofoam cooler. The bloody message puts Miranda on a path that will force her to do whatever it takes to protect her loved ones.
The Boatman's Daughter pushes up against the weirdest corners of horror fiction. There are witches, demons, dwarves, strange people, nightmares, awful memories of slaughtered children, severed heads, an evil old preacher, and bad things in the bayou that are not of this world. However, Davidson anchors his narrative on the land and the reality of a young girl forced into a life of crime. As a result, even the strangest passages feel real.
Davidson writes a strange blend of horror and crime that dips its feet into poetry and ends up neck-deep. The two genres clash in a brutal landscape, and what Davidson does with that violent clash is magical; he jumps seamlessly between past and present, from scenes of extreme violence to poetic passages about magic and bizarre rituals. That he relentlessly keeps these shifts up for over 400 pages is a testament to his talent as a storyteller.
The Boatman's Daughter is both a celebration of the bayou and a demonstration of the way the geography and history of that place can shape people — Miranda and everyone around her are tied together by the past, and it refuses to let them go, to allow them to be:
The woman in the boat had touched her — Miranda, Miranda is her name — and the girl had seen the woman's life as God must see the earth, a transparent jewel suspended in darkness. The whole cast of characters, the whole long history of everything rooted in the wet soil of the swamps, a terrible long night that had become a nexus in time for this woman, an island at the center of her ocean, a bread bowl and two shotgun blasts in the dark and a father lost and a girl, searching, searching, always searching, her heart a hollowed-out place where secrets could be hidden and found.
The Boatman's Daughter has an eerie rhythm that mimics the constant movement of the river. Also, much like the river, it changes shape, size, and speed. Sometimes Davidson will focus on the world at large or paint a picture of something major in a few lines. Elsewhere, he'll zoom in on something as small as someone making a sound with their mouth during a phone call, and he'll find a way of letting that wordless sound tell a story:
Silence on the line, followed by a low wet clicking sound, something weird and insect-like the old preacher did with his mouth. The sound of Billy Cotton thinking. It made Riddle antsy, this sound. All the years he'd known the preacher, he never once recalled the old man's hesitation leading to anything good.
At its core, The Boatman's Daughter is a sad tale about love, sacrifice, and how bad people can shape a community and set the lives of others on dark paths. Miranda realizes this too late: "Beyond this swamp, beyond these sweltering lands, there were other worlds. Places she could have gone. People she could have been. She felt them now, these other selves, stirring like ghosts in the grave of her soul. She had let too much of the past, of time and the river's currents, shape her." When she does, the realization hurts the reader more than it hurts her, which proves empathy is horror's most powerful tool.
This is a novel made of words, but also made of water, earth, trees, vines, moss, and lichen. To open it is to enter a humid place where kudzu and rust cover most things, and every person has roots like a tree that, instead of going into the earth, dig, crooked and always searching, into the darkness of their past.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas.