Swamplandia! by Karen Russell was one turbulent, unearthly, and disturbing read. I was shocked to find how little I enjoyed reading the story, given the immense amount of acclaim it has received. That’s not to say it isn’t a well written, riveting read: it is. It’s just that it’s a desperately sad story.
The story follows the broken Bigtree family and their broken alligator-theme park in the Everglades, called Swamplandia! The story includes the amusing tale of how the Bigtrees became the Bigtrees, what brought them to Florida, and the inception of Swamplandia! It is a family history that includes a heavy dose of reinvention, which is a strong theme throughout the book. (It makes you see “reinvention”, though deceptive in nature, as pitiable.)
The story’s stars are the three Bigtree children: Kiwi (17 and male), Osceola (goes by “Ossie”, 16), and Ava (12). Their father (unworthy of being called “dad”) tellingly goes by “Chief,” and their mother, the famous alligator wrestler Hilola, has recently died of cancer. The story is narrated in part by a 3rd person narrator following Kiwi in all his 17 year old boy angst as he runs away from home and gets a job at the mainland theme park (Swamplandia!’s biggest competitor), and Ava, who in 1st person takes us along her hopeless rescue mission of the mysteriously missing Ossie.
At 12, Ava is paradoxically wise and childlike. That’s one of my gripes with the book–Ava just isn’t believable. Her fierce devotion to the failing theme park is fueled by her dream of filling the expert alligator-wrestler shoes left empty by her mom: clearly, at 12, a small part of Ava might think that by keeping Swamplandia! alive, she can also keep her mother alive. When Ava herself articulates her existential revelation about the very phenomenon of the enduring bonds of mothers and their kin, I rolled my eyes a little. Ava is the sole care taker of the entire theme park’s population of alligators, literally nursing them from birth, and yet the nearly teen-aged girl is clueless about sex? That’s a bit far fetched. Despite this, Ava does work her way into your heart, and at the story’s predictable-yet-shocking climax I found myself weeping for the tearless girl in part because Ava cannot, or will not, or both.
The narrative following Kiwi is a bit befuddling. First of all, it contrasts so sharply from Ava’s story that at times it feels like two completely different books. Furthermore, his motivations are a bit inconsistent. And although you sympathize with the poor kid, he’s just so awkward and odd it’s truly painful. Ultimately, Kiwi is the only comic relief in the book, and you’ll cling to those gems of humor as your salvation from the swamp darkness.
And then there’s Ossie, the proverbial middle child, whose voice is missing from the story. Ossie develops an obsession with communicating with the dead, which leads to a romantic relationship with a ghost. This saga plays out rather tragically, with Kiwi begging her to get professional help, Ava uncomfortably teasing her but still accepting it as truth, and the Chief laughing it off. Most depressing of all is that Ossie’s shattered sense of reality is a far more appreciable (if macabre) experience than life at Swamplandia!
Russell does an outstanding job of explaining the beauty and savagery of the Everglades, as she ought to–she’s a Florida native. The characters are vividly described in all of their isolation and suffering. (I couldn’t help but think that those children who are fathered by their own grandfathers and grow up locked in a basement would be very similar to the Bigtree kids…) As the story progresses, you get more and more absorbed in their world, and that’s the problem–it’s a depressing one.
This is a solid literary work, and the uniqueness of swamp life is definitely a strong merit. In the end, though, this novel is too imperfect and too, frankly, weird, for me to recommend.
Currently reading: The Tiger’s Wife by Lea Obreht.