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Swamplandia! – Book Review

The Beginning of the End can feel a lot like the middle when you are living in it. When I was a kid I couldn’t see any of these ridges. It was only after Swamplandia!’s fall that time folded into a story with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. If you’re short on time, that would be the two-word version of our story: we fell. – from Swamplandia!, page 7 –

It has been a year since Hilola Bigtree died from ovarian cancer leaving behind her three children – Ava, Osceola (“Ossie”), and Kiwi – and “The Chief,” her husband. Swamplandia!, with their mother at its center, is the family business and the only life the Bigtree children have ever known. Wrestling alligators, selling “museum” trinkets, and entertaining the tourists who arrive on the ferry is what they have always done. But, now things have changed. Their mother’s loss has not only left them achingly alone, but has also left Swamplandia! without a star act. And there is a new game in town by the name of World of Darkness, a garish theme park of twisted rides inside a whale’s digestive tract and pools filled with ruby colored water. Kiwi, nearly seventeen and longing for a college education, runs away from Swamplandia! to become an employee at World of Darkness. Chief Bigtree mysteriously disappears on one of his vague “business trips,” and Ossie, just turned sixteen, seems lost in a world of ghosts and an old dredge boat. Ava, age thirteen, is left to her own devices and resolves to save Swamplandia! and her family before time runs out.

Karen Russell’s Orange Prize nominated debut novel is filled with quirky characters, rambling plot lines, and gorgeous descriptions of the Florida swamps. It is also a darkly constructed story about the individual nature of grief and loss. Each character in Swamplandia! is devastated by the loss of Hilola – a woman whose death-defying act of swimming with the alligators (called “Seths”) opens the novel. It seems that death is all around this family – from the monstrous Seths, to the World of Darkness where tourists are called “Lost Souls,” to Ossie’s flirtation with a dead teenage dredgeman, to Ava’s fantasy of visiting the Underworld and finding her mother. Each character is traveling their own path through grief.

Chief Bigtree, the dad, is oddly disconnected from the reality of his failing business. He seems unaware that his children are falling apart. His reaction to the loss of his wife can only be called denial. Perhaps Ava understands this best of all when she observes:

You could become a fossil in your lifetime, I’d discovered. I’d seen the eerie correspondence between the living Seths in our Pit and their taxidermied brothers in our museum. The Chief could achieve an ossified quality, too, with his headdress skeletally flattened against the sofa back, drunk and asleep. – from Swamplandia!, page 238 –

Kiwi flees the family, and runs from the memory of his mother whose image he keeps taped to the inside of his closet door. He leaves behind the safety of Swamplandia! and enters society where his differences stand out and he struggles to fit in with his peers. Now seventeen years old, he is no longer a child whose eyes are closed to the stark reality of his parents’ world and as he navigates through his grief, he uncovers family secrets and a rage he hardly knew existed.

Ossie escapes reality by slipping into a world of ghosts and fantasy. On the cusp of womanhood, she begins a relationship with the ghost of a dredge boat, slipping out of the house at all hours and spending her time calling up spirits with the help of a mysterious book.

She set off across the muck as briskly as a mainland woman who is late for her ferry. Her footprints filled with groundwater and as I watched a dozen tiny lakes opened between us. Rain blew in from the east while out west the sun burned through a V in the trees, bright and gluey-gold as marmalade. – from Swamplandia!, page 127 –

But is is Ava, narrator of much of the novel, who is the saddest in her grief. She believes her mother has trained her to become the next amazing alligator wrestler. Ava tries to hold her family together, and when that fails, she dreams up a way to save Swamplandia! which includes applying to compete in an alligator wrestling competition, and hand raising a rare red alligator. Ava’s memories of her mother are clear and poignant, and cloaked in a child’s reflections.

Our mother, in several beautiful ways, may have been a little crazy. For example: who dries their clothing with a hurricane coming? Like Ossie, Mom got distracted easily. It was seventy-thirty odds whether she would remember a conversation with you. Her moods could do sudden plummets, and she’d have to “take a rest” in the house, but she’d always emerge from these spells with a smile for us. Until she got sick, I can’t remember our mother ever missing a show. – from Swamplandia!, page 43 –

Swamplandia! is, at its heart, about the love that binds a family together in the face of devastating loss. The strength of the novel is in its characters who are memorable and feel very real. Russell also excels at description of the flora and fauna of the Florida swamps. Where the novel struggles is in the plot which tends to drag until the latter third of book. Russell alternates between Ava’s first person narration and Kiwi’s third person point of view – a technique which tended to break up momentum in the plot. It felt, at times, like Russell could not decide whose story she really wanted to tell. Ava’s voice is, overwhelmingly, the strongest and could have carried the novel alone.

Despite its occasional humor, Swamplandia! is a dark novel which resonates with danger. Reality is often fragile and just out of reach. Not everything is as it seems. It is this haunting quality which carries the reader through the final pages of the book to an ending that stretches believability. In fact, the end of the novel did not endear me to it. Russell quickly wraps up the book and pins a little bow on it, something I found frustrating after some plot twists which took my breath away.

I did not love this book, but I found it interesting. Russell is a talented author whose child characters pulled on my heartstrings, but whose meandering plot kept me from fulling engaging in their story.

  • Quality of Writing:
  • Characters:
  • Plot:

Overall Rating:

FTC Disclosure: I bought this book.

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21 Comments

  1. Nan Nan
    January 24, 2012    

    I really want to read this, and I thank you for the fine review. I wonder if I will ‘love’ it. There’s something so fascinating about that part of the country. Not a place I could live in, and I’m not even that interested in visiting, but I do watch The Glades, and The Finder enjoying the distance my television provides from those swamps and creatures. :<)

    • January 25, 2012    

      Nan: I agree – the area is fascinating – and Russell does excel in her ability to transport the reader to the Florida swampland.

  2. January 24, 2012    

    I’m always a big fan of books set in Florida, so I bought this one, but have yet to read it. I’ve heard mixed reviews, but hopefully I’ll like it. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • January 25, 2012    

      Julie: After I wrote my review, I went and read other reviews of the book – they range wildly from “hated it” to “thought it was the best book of the year.” I fell somewhere in the middle. I’ll be interested to see what you think of it!

  3. January 24, 2012    

    I was just so horrified at The Thing That Happened on the water, which I was so afraid was going to happen, but I wanted so much not to happen, and it was so horrible when it DID happen!

    • January 25, 2012    

      Jill: I began to see that coming and it creeped me out and made me feel queasy. I think that is why the end bugged me – here was this horrible thing, and Russell just seemed to whitewash it after the fact.

  4. January 24, 2012    

    So you finished it after all?! I admire your fortitude. I’m glad you liked it in the end.

    • January 25, 2012    

      Laura: I was determined to finish it! Actually later on Sunday, I picked it up and began to get to the part everyone was talking about…and then I was able to read it more quickly. I felt so-so about it – the characters are wonderful. The descriptions of the swamp are amazing. But the plot and the ending were really not great. Ah well, on to the next!

  5. January 24, 2012    

    I’m really excited about this novel and can’t wait to jump into it. I love the promise of quirky characters and a dark plot. 🙂

    • January 25, 2012    

      Andi: I hope you really like this one – some people are loving it and the characters are definitely strong.

  6. January 24, 2012    

    I bought this book when it first came out and haven’t felt compelled to read it. The meandering plot doesn’t sound enticing to me.

    • January 25, 2012    

      Kathy: I wish Russell had narrated it just from Ava’s POV…and shortened the book by about 75 pages.

  7. January 25, 2012    

    As always, a beautifully constructed and thoughtful review, Wendy. You are so equitable in your reviewing, allowing us to really see the books, and, in the end, to decide for ourselves.

    • January 25, 2012    

      Thanks, Beth. I always feel that readers ultimately should read the book themselves and make their own judgments. I know a lot of readers who loved this book (and clearly the Orange Prize judges did as they long listed it), so I don’t want my lukewarm feelings towards it to discourage someone else from trying it.

  8. Amy Amy
    January 25, 2012    

    This book is definitely different from what I thought it was…a lighter book about a family of performers! I will still read it at some point but with reservations. I like the sound of the characters since damaged, dysfunctional, dark interests me but a plot that drags some doesn’t. WHat concerns me more is an ending tied up with a bow especially in a book like this!
    I enjoyed your review and your honesty about the book, Wendy! Thank you!

    • January 25, 2012    

      Amy: Exactly! I thought this was going to be a funny, lighthearted book too…Russell does insert some humor into the novel, but ultimately the themes are dark and disturbing with a glimmer of light at the end. I was so disappointed with the ending – but you will have to see what you think when you read it.

  9. January 25, 2012    

    I have to admit that this sounds like a strange little read, but the weirdness also entices me because I love books that keep you thinking and that do things differently. I need to read this one, but I will be wary of the ending, because I don’t like it when things feel forced. Fantastic review by the way. I loved reading your thoughts and perceptions on the book!

  10. January 25, 2012    

    We had similar reactions to this one. I loved the writing but found the plot lacking, particularly in the middle. To me, it clear it started as a short story (in the St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves collection). There was more than a story there, but I don’t think there was quite enough for a novel. Still, I’m glad to have read it and am quite curious to see what she will do next!

  11. January 25, 2012    

    Books with alternating first person narration is hard enough…I can’t image alternating narration between different first and third person narrators. Thanks for the review.

  12. January 26, 2012    

    I’m with you on this one. Those 2 stars for the plot are the main problem. Carrie is right about it being enough for a short story, but no more. Such a shame.

  13. March 16, 2012    

    Glad I’m not the only one who yawned up until one astonishing plot twist.

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