Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

I had a beautiful, thoughtful beginning to this review all worked out in my head. And then I went to sleep, and now it's been a whole other day, and I have no idea what my great beginning was. So we'll go with this mediocre one.

Swamplandia! is the story of the Bigtree family-- alligator wrestlers who run a Florida theme park. The Chief and Hillola are the eccentric parents. The kiddos, from oldest to youngest are Kiwi, an awkward 17-year-old boy; Osceola, 16, who fancies herself a Spiritualist; and precocious Ava, 13. The book picks up after Hillola passes away as a result of ovarian cancer, and her brood is left floundering, looking for a way to keep the park relevant with new competition in town and a dwindling tourist population.

Soon the Chief takes off to the mainland to stir up some investors, and all hell breaks loose. Kiwi bolts for the mainland with the good intentions of working at the new theme park in town, World of Darkness, and paying off the family debt. Osceola runs off to marry a ghost. Ava, left to her own devices, heads out with an odd and off putting "Bird Man" on a trek to the underworld.

So we have a family drama and a Southern Gothic romp all wrapped up in one novel. It's an odd combination, and I had my doubts from the outset that it would work for me, but I found myself heavily invested in the characters' individual journeys. The book alternates between Kiwi's experiences working on the mainland and his troubles assimilating with mainstream culture to Ava's menacing and otherworldly journey.

Each of the characters in Swamplandia! is thoroughly lost in his or her own way. Each of them is trying to find solid ground after the loss of their mother who is literally the star attraction around which the Swamplandia theme park universe spins. Without her, each little familial entity flies in his or her own direction, untethered.

Karen Russell's writing, is undoubtedly beautiful. She was especially deft at juxtaposing kitsch elements with really elevated figurative language and surprising analogies. Her voice is distinct--and dare I say it--crisp! A short example that I noted before the e-book expired...
Heaven, Kiwi thought, would be the reading room of a great library. But it would be private. Cozy. You wouldn’t have to worry about some squeaky-shoed librarian turning the lights off on you or gauging your literacy by reading the names on your book spines, and there wouldn’t be a single other patron. The whole place would hum with a library’s peace, filtering softly over you like white bars of light… (234-235)
And speaking of libraries, I should mention, one of the quirky parts of this book included an abandoned "library boat" close to the Swamplandia! theme park where the island inhabitants could freely take books. Not a proper library, just an abandoned boat with a lot of books on it. Someone would have to pry me out of there with a crowbar. *swoon*

Despite the good writing, this will be a polarizing book. Because it is so quirky and kitschy in parts, and because it steps out with some supernatural elements, many readers will not be fulfilled and will find this book silly or otherwise disappointing. But I have to say, I found the kitschy/supernatural portions so SO clever. Without giving too much away, I was especially suspect of Ava's journey to the underworld with the Bird Man. While I thought it might be an ill-fated outing, I was unsure enough and sucked into the story enough, that I could've "bought" it all the way to the underworld or I could've been a little crushed if it didn't pan out. I won't tell you which way it goes.

For readers who are interested in analyzing the literary elements, I think this is a great book. There is a boatload (pardon the pun) of symbolism that's so knock-you-over-the-head obvious that it's worth poking into beyond the surface to see what Russell is driving at. If you don't consider yourself an analyzer, you can still appreciate this story for the odd characters, their wonky lives, and their individual journeys and comings-of-age.

Snuggle -- Skewer

Pub. Date: July 2011
Publisher: Vintage
Format: E-Book
ISBN-13: 978-0307276681
Source: Library

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