Author: Karen Russell
Genre: Literary Fiction
Where I got it (Full Disclosure): Publisher for review
One of the blurbs on the dust jacket of my lovely copy of Swamplandia! comes from Joseph O'Neill and calls Russell "an unfairly talented writer." This blurb struck me immediately, because in some ways, Russell is overly gifted. She has a preternatural sense of the descriptive, which for me is one of the things I most treasure in the books that I love. For example, here is the narrator Ava discussing what would happen if she were ever to leave her family's island home:
I would vanish on the mainland, dry up in that crush of cars and strangers, of flesh hidden inside metallic colors, the salt white of the sky over the interstate highway, the strange pink-and-white apartment complexes where mainlanders lived like cutlery in drawers.
Or here, Kiwi, Ava's brother fills out a medical history:
Kiwi had to answer pages and pages of questions about himself. Nope to measles, never to mumps, scabies, diabetes. He'd had two weeklong bouts of weird dreaming and terrible chills when he was six that his mom referred to as "grasshopper fever," but who knew how that illness translated into mainland etiology? Old crackers in the swamp used bear piss to cure chicken pox. One section of the form was called "Family History." Well, for starters, my sixteen-year-old sister is crazy, she has aural and visual hallucinations ... my youngest sister is an equestrian of Mesozoic lizards ... my father wears a headdress ... my grandfather bites men now.
This quote gives some idea of what the book is about. Russell tells the story of the Bigtree family, Florida islanders who own an alligator wrestling themepark. Hilola Bigtree, mother of Ava and Kiwi, is the star wrestler until she passes away from cancer, after which the park gradually - and then rapidly- declines in popularity and begins to die as well. To compound the slump, along the freeway in mainland Loomis, the nearest city, another theme park is being built. This park is called The World of Darkness and is hell themed. Eventually, all of the tourists are gone, the ferry comes no more, and the Chief - head of the Bigtree clan - leaves for the mainland to pursue "Carnival Darwinism," his plan to reinvent Swamplandia! He leaves his children alone on the island and soon the oldest son Kiwi leaves for the mainland to pursue his destiny as a self-labeled genius. Ossie, the oldest daughter, has fallen in love with a ghost (seriously, an actual ghost) and the youngest of the children, Ava, is left trying to fill her mother's shoes by becoming the next great Bigtree alligator wrestler.
Ava is the main first person narrator of the story, but there are also third person limited chapters in the voice of Kiwi that commence once he leaves for the mainland. Most of the humor in the novel is found in these chapters, as Kiwi finds himself immersed in a world that is radically different than what he expected, and in which the reader can finally recognize her world. Kiwi is an outcast on Swamplandia! and is surprised to find that he is an outcast on the mainland as well.
In fact, all of the characters in the novel are so strange that their story can often verge on the grotesque, and yet, Ava is a empathetic protagonist, who despite her bravado, reveals herself through the novel as the lost child that she is. Her story grows darker and darker, and also more compelling, as the novel progresses. Up until the last page, Ava refuses the vulnerability that the reader sees, and envisions herself as the rock at the center of her family, the anchor. There is certainly dramatic irony here, and the end of the book can seem rather bleak.
I just finished the book, and I should perhaps let it settle in my mind a bit longer, but I found the ending appropriate, timely in fact. The fate that befalls the Bigtrees is one that is familiar in our current America. The Bigtrees, as odd as they may be, are entrepreneurs in a pure sense. They have a small family business that is encroached upon by the "mainland" corporate world. Their island is literally encroached upon as well, by a government introduced invasive species of swamp plant. Although their world is magical, foreign, and often frightening, it is a microcosm for the understandable world in which we live.
I didn't love every bit of this book. It is rich and lush and descriptive, but it is not tremendously plot-driven, which made it a slow read. I have been reading a lot of "quick reads" lately, so it tested my patience. I loved the Kiwi chapters, and wished there were more of them, although by the end of the novel, I was wrapped up in Ava's story as well. In the end, I recommend this book for anyone who- like I do - appreciates the fine art of descriptive detail and purposeful quirkiness and who wants to get lost in the always strange, sometimes wonderfully magical and sometimes darkly Gothic world of the Swamp.