“Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell

Swamplandia!Title: Swamplandia!
Author: Karen Russell
ISBN: 9780307276681
Pages: 416
Release date: July 26, 2011
Publisher: Vintage
Genre: Fiction
Format: Ebook
Source: Library
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

“The Beginning of the End can feel a lot like the middle when you are living in it. When I was a kid I couldn’t see any of these ridges. It was only after Swamplandia!’s fall that time folded into a story with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. If you’re short on time, that would be the two-word version of our story: we fell.” – Ava Bigtree

The Bigtrees are the proud, indebted owners of Swamplandia!, a macabre and thrilling theme park devoted to “Seths”—their nickname for alligators. But when their star wrestler Hilola dies and a rival theme park, the World of Darkness, opens nearby, they hemorrhage customers.

Thirteen-year-old Ava is stricken with grief at the loss of her mother, the famous alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree. Hilola died not from an aggressive gator attack but from cancer, and Ava finds herself adrift. She’s not the only one. Her father, known as the Chief; her seventeen-year-old brother Kiwi; and her sixteen-year-old sister Osceola (Ossie) also break and slide apart.

The Bigtrees think of themselves as islanders, remote, separate from “mainlanders”—with all of the good and bad such distance entails. Their unconventional schooling gives the Bigtree kids a manner of speaking – both in vocabulary and delivery – unusual for their age. And that’s not the only thing setting them apart from their mainland peers; they all possess a peculiar naivete and a deep belief in magic.

The Chief sets off on a quest to “the mainland” to find monetary backing for the park, and Kiwi also leaves their little world to become better educated and to pull Swamplandia! out of its financial free-fall. The responsibilities of taking care of the Seths and Ossie, who is (of course) dating a Depression-era ghost, fall on Ava’s young shoulders. How will Ava keep her mother’s memory alive as her family and the only world she’s ever known seem to disintegrate around her?

Swamplandia!  was, at least at first, a critical darling. It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the same year that no award was given. (“This book is good, but not good enough,” judges seemed to say.) It was also long-listed for my beloved Orange Prize (now Women’s Prize for Fiction) in 2011, which was my impetus for reading it.

From the beginning, the author’s gale-force voice swept me in, but I grew more and more distant from the narrative as it progressed. This may be due to a matter of personal taste: I don’t really like it when authors flirt with magical realism. By the end of the book, I want to know if this is the world in which I live or another world, and I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Enough kooky stuff happens in Swamplandia!, though, that I’m still not sure.

While I enjoyed Russell’s powerful images, at many points her lush prose was almost distracting. She’s a gorgeous stylist, but her strong voice took over the narrative. Another stylistic convention that took me (and other reviewers) aback were the switches from first person (Ava) to omniscient (Kiwi) narrator.  Here’s a serious question: can you think of a single book in which this has ever worked?

It’s pretty much a requirement in every review of this book that the reviewer mention how very quirky these characters are. Lesson learned: if you make a character “quirky,” they risk losing their depth. Give them more depth, and their quirks become deeply ingrained characteristics.

However, despite (or perhaps because) of their quirks, I identified with the kids of the story quite a bit. I was homeschooled in the middle of nowhere, and my dad was also a patriarch with unconventional dreams of business success. Like Ava, I also felt like the glue holding my family together, especially during tragedies. On a personal level, I enjoyed this book quite a bit.

Overall, I enjoyed Russell’s strong voice and dark humor. If magical realism doesn’t bother you, I recommend this coming of age novel.

Here’s what other reviewers thought:

  • Carrie at Nomadreader seemed to enjoy it much the same way I did; it was good, but not as mind-blowing as it promised to be.
  • Greg at New Dork Review of Books didn’t like the book at all.
  • “This novel is primarily an exercise in style,” writes Monica of Elephant on the Roof.

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy Swamplandia! from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle version is available).

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