Swamplandia – Karen Russell
Swamplandia! feels like a collection of short writing exercises that were combined to form some sense of a novel. The prose is colorful, descriptive and imaginative, so much it reaches eccentric, teetering on contrived to tell a story of innocence lost.
The Bigtree clan lives on an island within the Ten Thousand Islands, running a theme park, Swamplandia!, showcasing live alligator performances. Twelve year old Ava Bigtree narrates portions of the book with a voice reminiscent of Scout, from To Kill A Mockingbird. Ava tells of the death of her mother, Hilola, to cancer that causes the eventual breakdown of the family. Ava’s sixteen year old sister, Osceola, deals with the death inward, finding a book of spells and begins to date a ghost and takes off to marry the ghost in the Underworld. Her father, whom she calls Chief, operates in grand fashion and hyperbole as if everything is fine, disappearing to the mainland to seek investors. Ava’s older brother, Kiwi, aware of the family’s financial circumstances, leaves to get a job on the mainland at a rival theme park.
About a third of the way through the book, Russell switches perspective from Ava’s innocent first person voice, to a third person observer of Kiwi’s work at the World of Darkness. The novel then jumps back and forth between Ava and Kiwi, where Ava’s story descends into uncomfortable horror with a figure named Bird Man and Kiwi’s ascends unbelievably to becoming a pilot for a theme park attraction. Both lose their innocence of the world both emotionally, intellectually and physically.
Russell employs symbolism to some effect. Ava hatches a lone alligator, born scarlet red, that plays a crucial role with Bird Man and her own innocence. Osceola’s descent into depression is the Underworld, and The World of Darkness is Kiwi’s lack of knowledge.
All this builds to an unbelievable convergence of plot lines that ties up too well. Throughout, as a reader, you can’t help but know things that the characters don’t. At times this is clever, at times it feels cruel. Swamplandia! is an enjoyable read if you’re comfortable with a high wire act of colorful prose and gothic eccentricity.