Review: Swamplandia!

Swamplandia! by Karen Russel is a tale of two teenagers confronted with growing up in a world they will never understand. Ava and Kiwi Bigtree live with the “Bigtree tribe” on an island in the middle of the Everglades where they run an alligator-themed park, showcasing their mother as the talented alligator wrestler. At the start of the story, however, their mother dies of something tragically common: ovarian cancer. And her death becomes the catalyst in the family’s economic (and at times mental) spiral.

Each member of the family deals with the death uniquely. Chief Bigtree, the family patriarch, encourages his children to promote his plan to revive the park and rope in the tourists. He goes on a business trip, leaving the children to fend for themselves. Meanwhile, Kiwi embarks on a venture to the mainland in hopes of raising money to stop Swamplandia! from going under. He acquires a job as bathroom janitor at The World of Darkness, a sophisticated rival theme park with rides that parody The Inferno and The Bible. Stuck in his almost-literal “Hell,” Kiwi fights to climb the ranks. Back on the gat0r-infested island, Ava witnesses her sister fall for a ghost named 

Louis Thanksgiving. After Osceola (her sister) runs away to elope with this ghost, Ava ventures into the swamp afterward with a mysterious, but friendly Bird Man. But will Ava’s journey into the Underworld to save her sister from the dead mean that Ava might end up staying there- dead?

{How I’m going to write this review is thus: first, I’ll give a verdict on the book overall. Then, I’ll delve into deeper detail of the book that may contain spoilers. So, read the short review, read the book, and then come back to read the full review. Also, talk about your thoughts on the book in the comment section below!}

Short review: Yes, read it. It’s worth it for a deeply moving story that is both lush and nuanced. The feelings expressed by these characters are so complicated, it is awesome. And the way that Karen Russell expresses these feelings insures that these characters will remain very real and constant in a reader’s mind. The plot was unique, though almost a serious parody of Dante’s Inferno. The prose was hauntingly beautiful and altogether too much.

What I mean is, I kept waiting for the story to begin. It begins with long passages of back story… and then suddenly Ava’s adventure into the swamp begins. But still I’m waiting for a gator fight. Until I understand that this book isn’t really just about gator-wrestling. It’s about a family and their struggle to stay together.

The book is split into two types of chapters: chapters narrated by Ava and chapters in 3rd person during which Kiwi’s adventures are described. Ava’s description overflow with similes and observations about swamp wildlife. While at first Russell surprised each time with her literary genius, the consistency of description-0f-sunset after description-of-sunset got a bit tiring. In Ava’s story, Russell achieves wrenching your heart out of your chest. In a very aching way. The kind of story that is sad, but you like that it makes you feel that way.

During the telling of Kiwi’s story, the writing is much more… mature. But sometimes pretenitious, which is supposed to reflect Kiwi’s frame of mind. And the unnecessary use of archaic SAT words makes the satire hilarious. A commentary of corporate treatment of pawn employees and public school systems and the hunger of media. I was less compelled by his parts, because his problems seem more detached, yet I enjoyed them more. The prose and story here do not force you to confront huge issues, only underage drinking and the loss of virginity.

So, in this way, the book is constantly refreshing. Changing between heartbreaking and hilarious. I definitely suggest this new novel and would love to watch a live alligator wresting show.

SPOILER ALERT!!!!

In-depth: If you have not read this book, it will be ruined in the next sentence. I can’t believe the Bird Man rapes Ava… The suspense of that scene is thrilling in the spine-tingling sense, not in the summer-blockbuster sense. When we first meet Bird Man, he’s an uneasy presence. But I figured that he was genuinely friendly, like a ghost himself who wished to help Ava to find her sister. I kept expecting them to stumble across the Underworld, full of real ghosts. But then of course, an anxiety slips over. Just as Ava realizes that something is wrong, so did I. They wonder not through Hell, but through the swamp still. And suddenly the Bird Man’s fatherly tenderness becomes… well, creepy.

The real problem occurs when you realize that you can’t help but like his character. Or at least feel sorry for him. So when he rapes a 13-year-old girl… it poses serious moral conflict. I was also pleasantly surprised by Kiwi’s misplaced heroism in finding Osceola, although disturbed by the image of the noose. I had thought she might try to kill herself, but I thought instead that Ava would find her strung up somewhere in the swamp.

Russell gets carried away sometimes with her prose, which with me, is fine. I would love to just roll around in her words. I might even read a whole book of mere descriptions of flora. That’s how good she is. But her characters are real enough to pull the story forward.

So, again, if you’ve read the book, I hope you enjoyed it as I did. The next book I’ll be reviewing is another fairly new one. David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. Leave your comments on Swamplandia! below.

About derekberry

Derek Berry is a novelist, poet, and student located in Charleston, SC.

Posted on June 16, 2011, in books, Reviews, Writing. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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