‘Swamplandia!’ Written by: Karen Russell Price: $24.95 Rating: 4 out of 5 bookmarks
Written by: Karen Russell
Rating: 4 out of 5 bookmarks
Karen Russell's debut novel, "Swamplandia!," is unlike any story you're familiar with, and it may be an odd literary confection that many readers would have to acquire a taste for. However, once you venture into Russell's mystical menagerie of the Florida Everglades, there is an ecosystem of blossoming prose and vibrant imagination. It all weaves together into a mesmerizing gothic portrait of love, death and the loss of innocence.
We are introduced to Ava Bigtree, a 13-year-old girl whose family runs Swamplandia! , advertised as the "Number One Gator-Themed Park and Swamp Café" in the area, and it is also the Bigtree tribe's secluded island home. When Ava's mother, the star performer at the park, suddenly dies of cancer, the island loses all of its tourists to the rival theme park World of Darkness, which is designed to resemble a biblical Hell.
As Swamplandia! goes into bankruptcy and the family is in danger of losing their home, Ava's brother Kiwi runs away to work at the World of Darkness to make money.
Meanwhile, her older sister Osceola falls deep into the delusion that she is romantically involved with a ghost and Ava's father "the Chief" abruptly disappears on a "business trip" and no one knows where he has gone. Ava is left to her own devices to try and save the park, by trying to become a world champion alligator wrestler like her mother.
As each family member becomes isolated by physical distance and/or mental disorientation, the three Bigtree children struggle with the dark, gritty reality of adulthood that had been unable to reach them in Swamplandia!, and they must learn to adapt in the world outside of the park.
What struck me most about this novel is Russell's extraordinary use of language, painting with precise adjectives and striking imagery to describe her characters and what they experience. There is a cold beauty to the things in Ava's world; even the alligators, those "fangsome sea serpents" with the "icicle overbites and the awesome diamonds of (their) heads" have a magical quality, as if these are mythical beings rather than real-life monsters.
Ava's sister Osceola is an embodiment of the spirit world that she comes to be obsessed with, a pale visage that doesn't seem entirely there: "My sister was born snowy ... not a weak chamomile blond but pure frost ... Her face was like our mother's face cast forward onto cloudy water."
The type of language Ava uses might seem unusual for a typical teen, but of course Ava is anything but typical; the world of Swamplandia! is a completely separate entity from the commonplace world, which up to this point Ava has very little grasp of, outside of the tourists who visit.
In fact, it's the tourists, the one aspect of Swamplandia! that is an outside force from her home, that Ava views with a lack of wonderment, with "their wrinkled rage and their stupid, flaccid old-people sun hats."
It is entertaining to read how the mechanics of Ava's mind work, and how they gradually evolve in how she views both the world she knows, and the one she doesn't.
The book alternates between Ava's first-person narrative and the adventures of her brother Kiwi, as he tries to survive working as a janitor in the World of Darkness. The symbolism might come off as a bit strong at first, but his story does provide some humor.
All the while, Ava tries to cling to the Swamplandia! existence she has always known, and Osceola fantasizes about becoming part of a world of her own choosing, Kiwi is the one who accepts the real world, with all of its confusions and, oftentimes, callousness. The dark tones and bizarre premise of the novel may not appeal to readers looking for a light, easy read, but "Swamplandia!" is a unique treat that blends the edges of the real, the ethereal and the surreal. If you're searching for a new breed of novel, this one will be a welcomed surprise.
Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review
appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her to tell her about it.