I don’t know. That is my initial response after reading Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! As a contender on many of the “Best of 2011” book lists, I initially thought that this novel would be a homerun, but it just goes to show how much subjectivity there is in the world of writing.
The book follows two main storylines: that of Ava Bigtree, a young girl who works at her family’s failing alligator-wrestling theme park and Kiwi Bigtree, Ava’s older brother who wants nothing more than to escape that same park and make a way for himself on the mainland. While these two characters serve as the baseline for the tale, they are filled out by Chief (the father), Hilola (the dead mother), Osceola (the other sister) and the Seths (the alligators.)
Ava’s story, while told with the mindset of a young adolescent, is written in beautiful prose. The elegant language, which seems a bit at odds with this rough and tumble tomboy of a character, allows the reader a more refined glance into the world which Ava inhabits than would be possible if it were told in the actual words of a kid. Through Ava’s eyes, we see her world crumble to pieces. After cancer takes her mother, the axis around which the whole family revolves and the park’s main attraction, nothing is the same. It is as if without the stabilizing force of Hilola, the family and business disintegrate into their individual parts, rather than continue to function as whole entities. It is in this confusion that Ossie begins dating ghosts and Kiwi escapes for what he imagines will be a better life on the mainland. At the same time, Chief disappears, leaving Ava, the youngest, as the sole guardian of Swamplandia!
Kiwi is the other character whose storyline is closely followed. The writing in his chapters was extremely different from that of Ava’s. It didn’t display the smoothness and insight that hers did. Rather, Kiwi’s story is rather disjointed and halting, mirroring the life he is trying to create for himself outside his family’s island. Kiwi considers himself well-educated (it is a self-provided education, coming from extensive reading, but without any feedback or discussion with others, making his full of random facts, but without utility behind the knowledge.) His attempts to fit in with the mainland kids and their way of life are uncomfortable to read. It is hard to imagine him ever fitting in in this new world, but as the book goes on and profanity spews from his mouth more and more readily, you realize that a metamorphosis is taking place. Eventually I felt as if Kiwi no longer held a place in either realm, making him an outsider with both his family and his new friends.
The part of the novel that I struggled with the most was Ossie and her ghostly relationships. As I read, I didn’t know whether my mind should wander towards the possibility that she was mentally unstable or whether Russell was going to take this into the realm of fantasy. I’m not good at the whole suspension of disbelief, so as Ossie and her dead fiancé head for the underworld, tailed by Ava and her Dante-esque guide, the Birdman, I just couldn’t decide how I should be interpreting the direction the story was headed. During these sections of the novel, I had a hard time enjoying the graceful writing and unique plot because I couldn’t take my focus off where this was all going. I kept trying to figure out what kind of twist would make this all possible in a novel that is otherwise set in a realistic realm.
Taking away the oddness of a search for the underworld off the coastline of the southern United States, this book had a touching core. The idea that the loss of the one person who holds a family together can make everything unravel is a painful one, but also one that plays out in reality on a regular basis. Without Hilola to draw in the tourists, the alligator theme park is doomed for disaster. Without Hilola to draw together the array of personalities making up the Bigtree family, the family falls apart, with each individual drifting in his and her own direction. While we never hear directly from Hilola, as she is dead before the first page of the book, she is the character around which all the choices of the book revolve.
My original “I don’t know” still stands. There were parts of debut novel that I really loved and was drawn in by, but there were also parts that were just too contrived and weird for me to accept as a reader. I can see why some people loved this book, but for me, it falls into the category of being interesting, but not something I am likely to pick up and reread at any point. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! earns: