Swamplandia! By Karen Russell
Certain novels have a way of creeping under your skin. It’s insidious. What begins as a quick sampling on the subway to pass the time becomes a knuckle-clenching gut-roiling read out of, seemingly, nowhere. You don’t come across these sort of books often, but when you hit a novel which elicits that feeling of transportation, it’s exceptional – it’s ephemeral – you’re almost wary to speak of it to others out of some sort of nearly primal fear that in discussing it, the story will lose its magic.
Is that just me? Clearly, I don’t do book clubs.
Swamplandia! is a breakaway hit by the young novelist Karen Russell, who first garnered notice with her collection of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves. The woman can write the eff out of a title, am I right? I am. I’m right. She can also just write – period. Swamplandia is by turns funny, insightful, escapist, and harrowing. It smacks of Harry Cruz or – and hear me out – Robin McKinley’s darker stuff (Think, Deerskin.)
The book tells the story of the Caucasian Bigtree clan, a family of alligator wrestlers left in an emotional fog and fog financial crisis after the death by cancer of their wife, mother, and star attraction – Hilola Bigtree, the woman who swam with the ‘gators – or as the Bigtrees know them, the Seths. Set in the Ten Thousand Islands region of Florida, we initially meet the family through the eyes and voice of the youngest daughter, Ava Bigtree, a proud wrestler who aspires to pick up where her mother left off. But as the family’s financial woes increase and audiences dwindle, Ava’s voice is joined by that of her older brother Kiwi, a highly intelligent if incredibly naive boy, who leaves the island with every intention of saving his family after a heated argument with his father, but winds up discovering that maybe he’s got to save himself first.
“Chief Bigtree” leaves the remaining siblings – Eldest daughter Osceola , for whom an obsession with spirits, budding sexuality, and isolation have coalesced to form a quiet storm of madness, and Ava – to handle business on the mainland. In his absence, Osceola elopes with the ghost of a young man she and Ava believe died upon an abanded dredge boat they discover mired in the swamp not far from their home. When Ava awakens to find Osceola gone, she enlists the help of the discomfiting Birdman to seek and save her sister.
Ava is sure her sister has sailed into the underworld and plans on going there to retrieve her – she gets more than she bargained for, and most certainly enters a hell of her own in the process.
Set against the backdrop of the Floridian swamps, the stark but sumptuous language will absolutely captivate you, and the circumstances will have you close to bellowing at each and every character at different critical junctures. Kiwi’s employment at a farcial amusement park provides, for a time, a dark sort of humor and a commentary on the modern need for perpetual entertainment, but when the book kicks into mach twelve it is anything but funny.
Swamplandia! is rife with captivating images and exquisite portrayals of adolescence in the wild – be that wild the swamp, or the urban world most of us are reared in. Russell paints a dark universe, but an identifiable one, where change is associated with trauma, and pain the gateway to adulthood.