Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Warning: plot spoilers ahead
Karen Russell's Swamplandia! opens like a poem - brimming with imagery, action verbs and, of course, her flawless personification. Once you discover that the protagonists are all alligators, you won't want to put the book down. Just as in St Lucy's Home For Girls Raised by Wolves, Russell has a way of melding beast and human so that the characters' 'species' is never thrown into question. They are as human as they are alligator:
"Hilola Jane Bigtree, world-class alligator wrestler, terrible cook, mother of three, died in a dryland hospital bed in West Davey on an overcast Wednesday, March 10, at 3:12 p.m."
Once Hilola Bigtree dies, the rest of her family - Ava, our narrator, her sister Ossie, her brother Kiwi and her father the 'Chief' are left to salvage the 'prestige' of their theme park Swamplandia! without its main attraction. Egged on by his radical idea of "Carnival Darwinism," the Chief refuses to acknowledge that Swamplandia! is finished. Ossie develops a cult following for the supernatural and begins to 'date a ghost,' a so-called Louis Thanksgiving. Kiwi, frustrated by his father's obstinance, ventures off to the rival themepark - the "World of Darkness" - to try and earn his own living. Ava, struggling with her mother's death and her family's rapid disintegration, is left to deal with her sister's 'erratic behavior.'
So, the magic of the opening slightly peters off as the plot develops. Indeed, things turn quite creepy, particularly post-Ossie's elopement with 'Louis' and especially during the seemingly out-of-nowhere rape scene (although the Bird Man's antagonism was expertly foreshadowed). The description is tucked so cleverly into the prose that readers at first seem willing to deny it before it all becomes undeniable.
Throughout the novel, one looming question presses readers as well as Ava - are Ossies' hallucinations real? Is she indeed able to communicate with the underworld? In particular scenes, it seems as if Ava does indeed interact with the mythological. Towards the end, however, reality settles on all the characters - Ossie begins therapy, the family abandons the Chief's 'Carnival Darwinism.'
Perhaps the only character who seems from beginning to end grounded in pragmatism is Kiwi, although he nonetheless harbours far-fetched dreams (e.g. going to Harvard) and overestimates his 'genius-ranking.' Because of his comparatively 'base' storyline, his chapters simply are not as engaging as Ava's - this was another one of the novel's drawbacks for me.
Swamplandia! did not evolve into the story I wanted it to be, nor did its rather hastily drawn ending strike me as particularly convincing. Nonetheless, one cannot doubt Russell's ability to spin out an utterly human story regardless of whether her subjects or wolves or alligators.
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