Review: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

book cover: swamplandia

Swamplandia! is an enviable first novel. The New York Times Book Review proclaims: “Vividly worded, exuberant in characterization, the novel is a wild ride. . . . This family, wrestling with their desires and demons . . . will lodge in the memories of anyone lucky enough to read Swamplandia!” True. The writing is vivid, the characterizations are exuberant, and it is memorable, but the last quarter is so terrible that I can’t recommend this book.

I usually provide my own summation, but I’m going to make use of the back cover because there’s a gap between how this book sells itself, and what it actually is:

Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree has lived her entire life at Swamplandia!, her family’s island home and gator-wrestling theme park in the Florida Everglades. But when illness fells Ava’s mother, the park’s indomitable headliner, the family is plunged into chaos; her father withdraws, her sister falls in love with a spooky character known as the Dredgeman, and her brilliant big brother Kiwi, defects to a rival park called The World of Darkness. As Ava sets out on a mission through the magical swamps to save them all, we are drawn into a lush and bravely imagined debut that takes us to the shimmering edge of reality.

I was drawn in with the promise of some magical realism, that intriguing blurred line between fantasy and reality. As long as Russell flirts with this line, the novel is creative and fresh. Unfortunately, she creates a story that outgrows her abilities and crescendos into something that should not have been compressed into the tired, convenient box she designed for the ending. In the last fifth of the book, she dispenses with all mystery and inserts a cruel cop-out that forces a harsh turn back to reality. I provided the summation from the back cover in my own defense (a lot of people liked this book) to show that I wasn’t expecting too much in my hope of some wondrous finish in some “magical swamps” at the “shimmering edge of reality.”

I’ve written here before that it isn’t valid to say something is “too dark,” but the turn that kicks off the denouement in Swamplandia! is, actually, too dark. Prior to this scene, life is pretty bleak for Ava Bigtree: Her mother is dead, her father and brother are absent, her sister is dating ghosts, and there isn’t much food, but her wry humor and survivalist mien cast these difficulties as fairly benign. When she takes to the swamps with the Bird Man, Russell finds her stride by stripping away the humor and amping up the suspense with an ‘anything can happen’ vibe as Ava and the Bird Man travel in search of an entrance to the Underworld. This section is the best part of the book as it’s unexpected, eerie, and mad creative.

Then unwelcome reality steps back in with a horrific turn. People who liked this book chalk this sort of thing up to “character development,” but it doesn’t accomplish this. It’s gratuitous and forces the end of the book into a tailspin that can only be resolved with a trifecta of eye-rolling coincidences.

So, what about the beginning? The first few chapters are pretty fantastic. Russell pulls the reader straight down into the poverty-stricken park. She describes it in a grim, hopeless, yet somehow endearing way, that will tug at the sympathies of any reader. Swamplandia! is severely crippled and I very much wanted to hose it down and hug it back to health.

We had one mammal, Judy Garland, a small, balding Florida brown bear who had been rescued as a cub by my grandparents, back when bears still roamed the pinewoods of the northern swamp. Judy Garland’s fur looked like a scorched rug–my brother said she had ursine alopecia. She could do a trick, sort of: the Chief had trained her to nod along to ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ Everybody, without exception, hated this trick. Her Oz-nods terrified small children and shocked their parents. ‘Somebody, help! This bear is having a seizure!’ the park guests would cry—the bear had bad rhythm—but we had to keep her, said the Chief. The bear was family.

Poor Judy! When I say the first few chapters are pretty fantastic, I mean: only the first few chapters are pretty fantastic. Once Ava’s sister starts wandering off to play with her Ouiji board and Kiwi leaves for the rival park, the narrative begins to flip between Ava, alone in the park, and Kiwi, mostly alone at another park. This tedious in-between goes on for 100+ pages before becoming more sharply focused on page 170 when it becomes necessary for Ava to venture into the swamp. 100 pages of tedium would be less trying if they didn’t comprise a quarter of the book. Ava and Kiwi are interesting enough, but they’re not complicated enough to warrant this kind of slow-motion dissection of their every action and desire. Further, every time either of their stories takes off, it’s time to cut back to the other. The pacing is poor throughout this section.

Overall: 3.0 (out of 5.0) The rating for a so-so book. Russell shows a lot of promise with an inventive story, but she failed in its execution. Swamplandia! is worth reading for its uniqueness, but the end is a disappointment.

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