Russell, Karen. Swamplandia. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.
Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love
A family of four lives in the Florida everglades running Swamplandia! an alligator wrestling theme park. Swamplandia! is narrated by Ava, the youngest and most precocious of the three Bigtree siblings. She is joined by her older sister Ossie and oldest brother Kiwi as they try to save their family’s park from financial devastation.Their mother has died within the past year leaving the family emotionally devastated as well. Kiwi takes off for the mainland with the intention of saving Swamplandia. Taking a job at The World of Darkness, a competing Florida theme park, Kiwi finds himself facing culture shock and alienation.
The plot starts to dissolve when Kiwi leaves home. The narration splits at that point rotating between first person Ava and third person limited (Kiwi and Mr. Bigtree). Things get messy here. Ossie elopes with a ghost, Mr. Bigree heads to the mainland to get funding for his new venture “Carnival Darwinism” that he thinks will save Swamplandia and Ava is left on her own with the seths (the family term for “alligators”) only to be lead to the “gates of hell” by a “bird man”.
The larger plot is fairly unique and certainly kept my attention. There could be some improvement of the micro plot points. Holes in the minor details pepper the larger plot. For example, in one scene Ava and Ossie are complaining about how hungry they are and how bare their kitchen cabinets have become since their father left for the mainland. A couple scenes later, they are packing their bags full of food in preparation for their next adventure….but with what food? Where did this food magically come from? The book is littered with little inconsistencies like this, so much so that it can pull you out of the story and you’re reminded that you’re reading a book. If a book is a good book, that never happens. You should stay immersed in the story, the language, and the characters from beginning to end.
Russell is clearly a talented writer. At certain points, her use of language dazzled me. I read and re-read certain paragraphs to absorb the juiciness of her prose. Russell is a wordsmith whose exposition is rich and haunting. The language can’t act as a replacement for good development, though and the conclusion was a flop for me. The conclusion of the book is as murky as the swamp waters through which Russell’s characters trek. It’s like when you eat a bite of something delicious, but it leaves a bitter aftertaste in your mouth. It just misses being satisfying. That’s how I felt at the end of Swamplandia!.
I am a fan of dark stories and I’m not against bad things happening in stories. In fact, I really like it when bad things happen and the writer dives into the complexity of that trauma. Russell failed to do this. Just before the end of the book, readers are hit with a trauma and then Russell doesn’t deal with it, doesn’t dive into it at all. It’s glossed over as if it were no more important than having cheerios for breakfast instead of oatmeal or something. I can see the message she might be attempting here--that when faced with trauma, some choose to live in denial of the trauma BUT that denial wasn’t even dealt with or explored. It was “this very bad thing happened and now, the end.”
I am really excited to see what else Karen Russell does. This was a great first novel, even if I didn’t love certain aspects of it. I think she truly has some real potential as a writer and I will gladly pick up her next book.
This book is FOR: people who want a beautifully painted picture of life in the Florida everglades, and experience with a new contemporary writer.
This book is NOT FOR: People looking for a plot driven story, those who are triggered by scenes of sexual assault, or people who don’t like flowery, cerebral, language.
Three darts are awarded to Swamplandia! Three darts for the language, the unique characters and delicious setting. A higher rating was impossible in light of the bitter aftertaste.