Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

336 pages

Knopf (2011)

Genre: Fiction, magical realism

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Re-readability: It’s definitely one that could be read again, although I think I would rather give one of Russell’s others a try first.

Reviewed by Indiana


If you know anything about Florida—and most people in the U.S. know what I’m talking about—it’s that crazy things happen there. Ancient reptilian creatures eat resident’s pets, people always seem to be crashing into buildings, sinkholes swallow cars and houses on a regular basis, and there’s an entire season where anyone’s home could be destroyed by a really intense thunderstorm (otherwise known as a hurricane). The news headlines coming out of the state tend to be so bizarre I often think they’re fake before I realize they’re coming from a credible source. There’s an entire subreddit and Twitter for Florida Man . . . There’s good reason to believe there’s something weird going on in Florida.

So it seems fitting that “Swamplandia!” which takes place in Florida and in the swamplands around it, should weave in bits of magical realism at every turn. The story revolves around the Bigtree family, who run and live on an amusement park/alligator farm. With the loss of their mother (the star of their alligator wrestling show) and with another amusement park to compete with the family falls into disrepair. Ava, the youngest family member, who is sweet and sensible, tries to hold the Chief (her father), Kiwi (her brother) and Osceola (her sister) together.

But Kiwi soon gets lost trying to make money for the family and Osceola wanders into a spiritual realm she calls the Underworld, believing that a ghost will marry her. It’s up to Ava to find Osceola after she wanders hopelessly far into the swamplands around their home. Along the way, the line between reality and imagination blurs, and it reminded me vaguely of something out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book, but creepier somehow.

There’s no doubt that Russell is a powerful writer. That’s what held the book together really. There were so many descriptions that would thrust you into the character’s viewpoint, and there were a few pithy statements that popped up from the page (“The beginning of the end can feel a lot like the middle when you are living in it”). I appreciated the character development that all three siblings underwent throughout the book: it was like reading three very odd stories.

But there were a few pieces to the book’s plot that I questioned. Russell spent a lot of time leading up to Osceola’s disappearance talking about how odd Osceola was and how she was becoming engrossed in the world of the occult. But there wasn’t really an examination of what happened to her on the journey through the swamplands.

I also questioned Birdman’s character. He has so many chances to harm Ava when they first meet. Yet, he doesn’t harm Ava until days later. Why was that scene even necessary? It felt like the author needed a dramatic way for Ava and Birdman to part and decided to add the scene in at the last minute.

Overall, it was an intriguing book, but it didn’t quite live up to it’s potential. However, because Russell’s writing is strong, I’m open to picking up another one of hers. Any suggestions are welcome!

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