Karen Russell, Swamplandia!

My review of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! appeared in Saturday’s Mint Lounge.

There are all sorts of interesting things about Swamplandia! that couldn’t really be addressed in a review. I’m not generally that concerned about plot spoilers in a book. In this case, however, being spoiler-free was essential to my reading of the book. I think Swamplandia! allows for some very intelligent playing around with perspective and fantasy and reality – and it is very frustrating not to be able to discuss these aspects of the book when I think that (along with the fine prose) they’re some of its biggest strengths.

As ever, an edited version appears below.


Karen Russell’s 2006 collection of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was as notable for its odd, often fantastic take on growing up as it was for its memorable title. Last year Russell, who is now 29, appeared on The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list of promising young writers who the magazine believed would be significant in the years to come. Swamplandia! is her first novel, and it recently achieved a place on this year’s Orange prize longlist.

Swamplandia! is an extension of one of the stories in St. Lucy’s Home… , “Ava Wrestles the Alligator”. As in many of her short stories Russell adopts the voice of the adolescent. The narrator of most of Swamplandia! is a teenaged girl named Ava Bigtree, daughter of Hilola Bigtree, the famous alligator wrestler. Hilola dies of cancer and Big Chief, Ava’s father, finds it difficult to keep up the family’s alligator-theme park, Swamplandia!, located in the Everglades of Florida. Matters are worsened by the advent of a big hell-themed amusement park not far away.
Ava and her sister Ossie are left alone on the resort. Ossie falls in love with a ghost and first she, then Ava, must embark upon a journey to the Underworld. Meanwhile, their brother Kiwi must deal with an underworld of his own; life on the mainland at the World of Darkness theme park. Once Kiwi has left Swamplandia! the book is divided in two – the chapters that follow Kiwi are alternated with Ava’s point of view sections. Kiwi’s journey parallels Ava’s own, yet the contrast between the two worlds is always clear. Where Ava must dive into the water with the alligators to prove herself, Kiwi must rescue a swimmer from a pool where the water is dyed red. Russell emphasises the contrast with her prose; the utilitarian language of Kiwi’s sections of the book could not be more different from the startling, lush account of Ava’s journey through the swamp.

Stands of pond-apple trees were adorned with long nets of golden moss and shadowed a kind of briary sapling I didn’t recognize. Air plants hung like hairy stars. We poled through forests. Twinkling lakes. Estuaries, where freshwater and salt water mixed and you could sometimes spot small dolphins. A rotten-egg smell rose off the pools of water that collected beneath the mangroves’ stilted roots.

The division of the book into ‘Ava’ and ‘Kiwi’ sections has its drawbacks, however. The contrast between the sterile World of Darkness and the Everglades may make sense, but compared to the over-the-top loveliness of Ava’s sections, the ones focusing on Kiwi fall rather flat. The middle child, Osceola, never gets a voice and is never a fully realised part of the story. In the central sections of the book, where Ossie’s relationship with the ghost develops, the pace slackens considerably. A long chapter giving the ghost a background story feels rather orphaned in the middle of the text, though it is a fine piece of writing in its own right.

Russell makes the question of whether this is fantasy or magical realism (or simply the characters’ own imagination) irrelevant. The writing shifts easily between the mythic and the real. Ava is in many ways still a child, and her age allows for this constant moving between registers. On at least one occasion this shift leads to a devastating revelation. The fantasy elements of the story are intangible and unsettling, but fit perfectly.

[T]hings can be over in horizontal time and just beginning in your body, I’m learning. Sometimes the memory of that summer feels like a spore in me, a seed falling through me.

I think something more mysterious might be happening, less articulable than any of the captioned and numeraled drawings in The Spiritist’s Telegraph. Mothers burning inside the risen suns of their children.

For all its strangeness, Swamplandia! is also the account of a family’s coming of age after a huge loss. As a family drama it is honest and moving and funny.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she told me that night. But until we are old ladies—a cypress age, a Sawtooth age—I will continue to link arms with her, in public, in private, in a panic of love.

Russell never quite manages to keep up the brilliance that shows for long stretches of this first novel. But these heights, when they are reached, are truly extraordinary. While Swamplandia! is very far from being a perfect book, it is the sort of book that makes you truly glad that the author is still at the beginning of her career.


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