Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree’s world is falling apart. After her mother, Hilola Bigtree, renowned alligator wrestler and the star attraction at the family’s island theme park, Swamplandia!, dies of cancer, things start unravelling. Revenues at Swamplandia! plummet and Ava’s father travels to the mainland to try and save his business. Her brother, Kiwi, defects to a rival theme park, the World of Darkness, and her sister, Osceola, falls in love with the ghost of a teenage dredgeman who was killed in the swamp in the 1930s. Ava is left alone amid the ruins of Swamplandia!, trying to hold back the infestation of melaleuca trees and watching over the ninety-eight Seths (all of the Bigtree alligators are called Seth) that populate the park. As this makes clear, Karen Russell’s first novel, Swamplandia!, exists in the same speculative space as her short stories, and it’s exactly the kind of territory I like most; weird things happen, but they feel real rather than magical realist. Russell grounds her yarn through the precise details of her swampy setting, which is an actual place – the Ten Thousand Islands off the coast of southwest Florida.
I have to say that Rebecca’s review of this novel pretty much sums up my thoughts, but I’ll try to explain why I loved Swamplandia! so much even though it’s a massive mess. It took Russell a long time to write and it shows – you can almost see the stitches that hold its disparate parts together. Ava’s narrative approximates a coming-of-age story but its relationship with reality is never quite clear; at times it seems that Russell wants us to read Ava as an intensely unreliable narrator who is bestowing magic upon Swamplandia!, at other times it seems that we’re meant to believe in what she’s recounting. Osceola’s relationship with the dredgeman ghost starts off with a bang, when she recounts the story of his death in a beautifully focused few pages that showcase Russell’s gift for set-piece, but then this thread flounders, getting wrapped up swiftly at the end as if Russell had already forgotten about it. Meanwhile, Kiwi’s more realistic travails at the World of Darkness are so straightforwardly gripping that they risk dominating the book and robbing Ava of her agency. It’s a tricky one to call, because I enjoyed the digressions in Swamplandia! far more than the central narrative, and yet structurally they do detract from what Russell wants to say about Ava. At the same time, the untidiness of this book adds a richness to its telling.
Russell has a gift for simile and metaphor, and in her short stories, these are deployed expertly. In Swamplandia!, I felt they were, at times, used too much, especially as reading a 300+ page novel is a much more intense experience than reading a 30-page short story. Each individual idea is still brilliant, but when juxtaposed too closely together, the effect is confusing rather than illuminating. For example:
[T]he black raptors continued to map the sky. The buzzards from Ohio had migrated here too. Turning circles, as docile as party ponies around a mainland carousel. Then they fell, one by one, like little black razors, into the paurotis palms. And it was hard to see this and not think of carnage. A line of birds falling in a row. Red clouds massed in the southeast and it looked like the sky was getting its stitches out after an operation.
However, as with the book’s structure, the writing is strikingly uneven; there are whole pages and chapters that are impeccably judged, and then pages like this that feel much clunkier. Ava’s long journey into the swamp, from which this quotation comes, is especially overwritten, and this probably contributed to my sense that this segment was the weakest part of the novel.
And yet… sometimes I worry that books can be overedited, because while I can see the temptation to ‘fix’ Swamplandia!, and I definitely think that some of its sentences could be slashed and burned, I also wonder if trying to make this novel work in a more conventional way would have robbed it of some of its genius. We probably don’t need to know everything that we find out about the Bigtrees, but I wanted to know most of it anyway. And while the road there might be frustratingly meandering, the final paragraph is just perfection.