Friday, June 6, 2014

Review: "Swamplandia!" by Karen Russell

Once upon a time, Hilola Bigtree, the Swamp Centaur, wrestled alligators before cheering crowds at Swamplandia!, the Bigtrees' family-run theme park. Her daughter Ava wanted nothing more than to be just like her. But Hilola is dead and the tourists no longer flock to the island, preferring the gimcrack attractions on the mainland. Swamplandia!, like surviving Bigtrees, is abandoned.

While Chief Bigtree vanishes for days on end--supposedly raising money to save Swamplandia!--his children are left to fend for themselves. The traitor Kiwi runs away, working at a rival hell-themed water park to earn a normal life for himself and his sisters. Dreamy Osceola holds seances, talking first to her mother and then to a succession of ghostly "boyfriends." When one proposes to her, Ossie boards a derelict ship she believes will drift to the Underworld, leaving Ava behind.

Guided by the mysterious Bird Man, Ava plunges into the treacherous labyrinth of the Everglades, searching for Ossie. In the wake of Hilola's death, someone has to save Swamplandia! and the Bigtrees, even if that someone is the youngest of them all.

4.5 out of 5 stars


The exclamation point is important. One must read the name of the doomed theme park like a shout, like the Bigtrees do. It's a rallying cry, a bird-call of kin to kin, a declaration of existence. It's also a plea for help, begging the world for mercy.

Swamplandia! tells a magnificent story about levels of deception--a little showbiz, a little mythologizing, a little self-delusion--and also about loss and waste. It's been described as "a swampy Southern Gothic;" I'll call it a ghost story sans ghosts (unless Ossie can be believed.) One could make the case for labeling the book "magic realism," but Karen Russell makes it impossible to distinguish between magic, childhood imagination, and desperately wishful thinking.

What cannot be denied is that this is an eerie book, rendered surreal by its own sense of reality.
"What's your name?"


"Ava." The Bird Man shook my hand. "Can you keep a secret?" He reached his gloved hand out and pressed two fingers against my lips. "Listen to this." 

The first three sounds he made were familiar to me. A green-backed heron, a feral peacock, a bevy of coots. Then he made another, much deeper noise, as close to an alligator bellow as I have heard a human make but not quite that, exactly. It flew up octaves into an otherworldly keen. A braided sound, a rainbow sound. I stepped closer, and closer still, in spite of myself. I tried to imagine what species of bird could make a sound like that. A single note, held in an amber suspension of time, like a charcoal drawing of Icarus falling. It was sad and fierce all at once, alive with a lonely purity. It went on and on, until my own lungs were burning.

"What bird were you calling?" I asked finally, when I couldn't stand it any longer.

The Bird Man stopped whistling. He grinned. 

For the life of me, I can't tell whether Swamplandia! is contemporary fiction or historical. (I'll err on the side of contemporary unless one of you, dear readers, can identify a date marker somewhere in these pages.) I read it with a sense of displacement. Russell conjures up her characters' world with lush yet heavy descriptions, richly rotting like an overturned stump--but while I always knew where Ava stood, I couldn't find the conjunction with my own world. The island Swamplandia! is isolated and removed from time (and reality), and the Bigtrees' forays into greater civilization depict a sort of impoverished rural hell that is, in its own way, timeless and a little alien.

Speaking of hell, the Underworld looms large in this book, but it takes unfamiliar shapes. The Bigtrees exist in a dismal limbo-like state in the wake of their matriarch's death, sinking slowly downward with no savior to intervene. The World of Darkness, where Kiwi works, bastardizes Dante's infamous circles into something like a cheap Disneyworld. Through her seances, Ossie convinces Ava of the existence of a lonely Underworld somewhere in the Everglades. The Ten Thousand Islands are described as a maze at best, and at worst, one of the circles Dante chose to avoid altogether, as tourists are unlikely to come out again. For that matter, even the Bigtrees don't wander through the unmarked, ever-shifting morass of temporary islands, sedge, and gater holes unless it's for a really good reason. (Like finding a lost sibling, or a dead mother.)

But none of these little hells of the imagination hold any terror. They're each harmless in their own way. (See above re: levels of deception.) The real Hell is what one person can do to another. Or, perhaps, Hell is the final death of hope.

Dear reader, there may come a point in this book when you, like me, may find your heart aching. You will feel betrayed, lied to, brutalized. You'll cry out in denial ["Swamplandia!"] In short, like Ava, you will have wanted to believe in magic.

Swamplandia! is not a perfect book, although it's close. I'm still mad about the missed potential of Mama Weeds, which is a local ghost story that Russell springs on the reader at the last minute. In my opinion, that's a tale which should have been woven throughout the story, so that Ava's encounter would have a little weight. As it is, it feels a little tacked-on and out of the blue. Given how much  this story circles around the void left by Hilola Bigtree's death, a recurring story about another ghostly Mama would have been appropriate.

Nevertheless, I love this book, even when it disturbs me, even when it sloughs off hope like a skin grown too small. I give it my full recommendation to readers with a love of the strange.

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 5/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 4/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 5/5
Resolution of Conflict: 4/5
Emotional Engagement: 5/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: fail
Content Warning: child abuse

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