Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A great premise but a storyline which appears to be a bit confused on whether it wants to be a magic-realist fantasy, family adventure or a much darker tale on the loss of innocence.
The Bigtree family run their own alligator themed adventure park in the swamps called Swamplandia and their star performer was Hilola Bigtree, wife to Chief Bigtree and mother to three kids. Hilola’s headline act was her dive into a pool of alligators for a spot of wrestling. However, with the onset of cancer, she passes away and leaves behind an increasingly drifting family and park. What with the headline act gone and with a modern them park, World of Darkness, coming up on the mainland, the tourists dry up and eventually stop. The Chief has great ideas for change and takes off to the mainland to gather up finances for his schemes. His son, Kiwi, though is scornful of his father’s ideas and takes off to the mainland himself to start work in the competing World of Darkness, hoping to eventually work his way up and make enough money to save Swamplandia. This leaves his younger sisters alone on the swamp. Osceola, the older of the two, gets inclined towards spiritualism and the sort and has nightly experiences where she wanders off for nighttime trysts with her boyfriend, who happens to be a ghost. Ava, on the cusp of teenage, is perturbed by these peculiarities of her sister, but plays along until one day her sister disappears. Confused and guardian-less, she decides to set off into the mythical ‘underworld’ along with a mystical guide who suddenly shows up – the Birdman.
After a point, the story splits off into two parallel accounts – one from the point of view of Ava, and the other an account of Kiwi’s adventures on the mainland. Would the Swamplandia family find their happy ending?
The idea and the initial portions were captivating. Ava’s thoughts of growing up in a land away from the usual mainland comforts and populated by the ‘Seths’ (alligators) as well as her quirky accounts of her family invoked a bit of John Irving’s style at times (and I love Irving). The sadness and quietly deepening desperation of the family is also believably rendered. It’s the latter part of the book though where it unravels a bit. From a hopeful, crazy, fairytale kind of story, we are suddenly thrust into dark reality, especially with respect to Ava and the Birdman. I don’t have a problem with dark fates to lead characters, but the tonal shift in the last part and the mostly unanswered questions didn’t work very well for me here. The Birdman’s character was also not very convincingly drawn out. By the end, we are left wondering what exactly the point was and whether what we read can constitute a satisfying conclusion. Moreover, maybe a story on Hilola Bigtree would have been more apt to explore this murky world.
But some of the writing is great though, and I really liked the vivid descriptions of the swamp and the idiosyncratic setting and characters. Worth a look for these aspects, though probably not a keeper.