First Published: 2011
In the Florida Everglades, gator-park Swamplandia! is in trouble. Its star performer, the great beauty and champion alligator-wrestler Hilola Bigtree, has succumbed to cancer, and Ava, her resourceful but terrified 13-year-old daughter, is left in charge with her two siblings. But Ava’s sister has embarked on a romantic relationship with a ghost, her brother has defected to a rival theme park, and her father is AWOL. And then a mysterious figure called the Bird Man guides Ava into a perilous part of the swamp called the Underworld, promising he can save both her sister and the park…
Swamplandia! is an excellent book. It’s not necessarily the book you expect from the blurb but it is beautifully written, darkly humorous, and packs a hell of an emotional punch.
I was expecting, from the blurb, a sort of dark, swampy, alligator-filled, Alice-in-wonderland type tale; a uniquely Florida take on the Orpheus myth as Ava heads out on a mystic journey with a mysterious guide through alligator-infested swamps to rescue her sister from the underworld. And that seems to be what Ava (our thirteen-year-old first-person narrator) expects too. But it’s not quite what you get. It’s a very slow paced book, the changes in tone very gradual and incremental to begin with – her sister’s disappearance and the underworld trip mentioned in the blurb does not even get started until about halfway through. But slowly and steadily, the humour and quirkiness of the early parts of the novel begin to fall away until the novel has somehow spiralled from plucky-heroine magical-realism into something much, much darker and scarier than a simple journey to the underworld. And it’s as heartbreaking and shocking for the reader (though much less surprising) as it is for Ava herself.
It’s masterfully done, I think – though I can certainly understand why it upsets people and makes this a ‘love it or hate it’ book. You can see it slowly unravelling, understanding before the narrator herself that something is going to go horribly wrong. There were parts towards the end of the story where I had to put the book down and leave it because I couldn’t deal with tension. Which to me says that Russell is very very good at creating atmosphere. It’s not often I put down a book and have to distract myself with something else for an hour or two because I don’t want to find out what happens next.
So…why only four stars instead of five? Well, while I loved (and hated) Ava’s storyline, I thought the ending felt a bit rushed together – I could have done with another thirty to fifty pages to fully absorb what happened and make conclusion feel more organic. And whilst the writing itself was beautiful I thought some of Russell’s narrative decision’s were rather inelegant solutions to showing things that Ava couldn’t know and didn’t quite work with the main first-person narrative of the story. The sudden switch to alternating first-person Ava, third-person Kiwi (her brother) chapters was jarring at first – it made me question who was writing the Kiwi chapters and why, breaking my immersion with the story even as I liked the content of the chapters themselves. And the story within a story of the life and death of Ossie (Ava’s sister)’s ghost boyfriend felt weirdly too detailed. Well told, but somehow too well told for the context it was being shared in.
But this is a debut novel (Russell is a celebrated short-story writer) and for that I have to say I’m really, really, impressed. A great piece of magical realism and coming of age that lulls you into an early sense of familiarity with the genre only for everything comforting and narratively familiar to slowly slip away. I feel bad even reviewing this because, vague as I’m being I know that’s enough to spoil some of the experience but I really want to review it cause I have lots of feelings, it’s a dilemma!
I would not, definitely not, recommend this as a book ‘everyone’ should read (not that I think there exists any single novel that ‘everyone’ will enjoy). I can very easily understand why it has so many one and two star ratings on goodreads. But personally I was very impressed. This is my first Karen Russell (an author I’ve been telling myself I should pick up and read for years now) but it will definitely not be my last.