Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (2011)
Karen Russell’s love of both ‘literature’ and ‘speculative fiction’ is what drew me to her work. Swamplandia! is an extraordinary debut novel from a young writer whose abundant talent caused me (and, I would imagine, a good many other writers) to turn green.
Swamplandia! is set on a swampy Florida island where the pseudo-indigenous ‘Bigtree’ family run an alligator theme park. Some members of the family wrestle ‘Seths’—the Bigtree clan’s sobriquet for the ancient reptiles.
Mother Bigtree is the star attraction, diving from a high board into a pool full of Seths and swimming through to the other side. When she, the great crowd pleaser, dies, and a huge theme park—the ‘World of Darkness’—opens on the mainland opposite, the Bigtree’s park falls into dramatic decline. The nucleus of the family is gone, and the clan tears apart at the seams without its members’ defined roles to protect them.
Without dallying too much over the plot, the novel focuses on Ava Bigtree, an aspiring alligator wrestler who is, in effect, left stranded. Her father is trying to save the park with grand visions, her older sister Ossie—in a fragile but wonderfully whimsical mental state—has fallen for a ghost, and her brother Kiwi has fled to the mainland with dreams of helping both himself and his family.
Ava’s story is told in a very effective first person voice. And while no girl her age would be that articulate, I still loved this narrative voice, which does not dumb down language to maintain effect but rather plays with it. The personality of Ava shines through but the words and sentences also maintain a rich literary feel. The passage below, which recalls a nightmarish folktale, illustrates this:
‘This part always made me dart under the covers, because I couldn’t stop seeing poor Miss Drouet in my mind’s eye, gagged and dragged down to the water by her murderers, dead already and now drowning, too, her cloth dress opening up like a flower on the swamp water in a mixed-up and evil chronology. Her dead body floating. Her dead face, the mask of it, rising and falling on the sea’s uneasy breath.’
Kiwi Bigtree, the other focal character—written in a close third person—is thrust into suburbia, where all the books that he has read mean very little amidst hormonal ragtag teenagers. He finds work in the ‘World of Darkness’ and tries to make his own way, learning a whole new culture in the process:
‘It was unwise to mention colleges, or hopes. Telling your fellow workers that you were going to Harvard was a request to have your testicles compared to honey roasted nuts and your status as a virgin confirmed, your virginity suddenly as radiant and evident to all as a wad of toilet paper stuck to your shoe, something embarrassing that you trailed through the World.’
Swamplandia! is not above criticism. Perhaps the scene where Ava is lured into a swamp-trek in order to find her sister could have been handled more succinctly or less obviously. But, then again, it held me, and Russell appears to be writing along the lines of Joyce Carol Oates here, who often intentionally holds the reader with an inevitably dark and expected climax.
Initially, I thought the aftermath of what Ava endures not resounding enough (you’ll understand when you read it), but on reflection I think that Russell handles it in a unique way. It works well, and, after all, not everything in literature needs to be overly solemn and broody.
Ossie’s retelling of her love’s, the ghost dredgeman’s, past, does wane. It is far too long and, although superbly written, is both an unneeded and unwanted distraction from the main narrative—I found myself skim-reading a few of the fifteen or so pages. But if any of the aforementioned aspects are flaws, they are minor when compared to the work in its entirety.
Karen Russell’s prose is sharp, observant and wickedly clever; reminiscent of a merry fusion of George Saunders and Kelly Link. On very rare occasions a sentence or two does come across as a little too ‘cute’ and borders on the ostentatious—but not in the sense of authors like Will Self or Glen Duncan (both purposefully indulgent writers that I hold in high regard). With a voice and prose as ambitious as Russell’s, this minor issue is to be expected at times. Russell, for the vast majority of Swamplandia!, manages her fertile writing with all the aplomb of a well-seasoned veteran.
Swamplandia! is a poised and resounding accomplishment whose prose alone deserved the Pulitzer for which it was short listed. The Bigtree family enchant and remain with the reader long after the final line.
I’m now a Karen Russell fan, difficult to believe after only one novel. The day after finishing Swamplandia! I tracked down and bought her anthology: St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. I couldn’t help it—I needed more Russell.
Read Swamplandia! Believe me, you won’t get bogged down at all in the swamplands.
Anthony Panegyres is a Perth writer and an Aurealis Award finalist, whose stories have been recently published in Dotdotdash Magazine, ASIM, The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2011 and Overland Literary Journal.
- Alien Onion
- Ampersand Duck
- Andrew McDonald
- A Pair of Ragged Claws
- Arts Victoria
- Australia Council for the Arts
- Bookshow blog
- City of Tongues
- darkly wise, rudely great
- David Astle
- Dorothy Johnston
- Elmo Keep Does Stuff
- The Ember
- Going Down Swinging
- Griffith Review
- Killings blog
- Lorraine Crescent
- Lynden Barber
- Mandy Ord
- Marcus Westbury
- Melbourne University Publishing
- Mel Campbell
- The Monthly
- Musings of an Inappropriate Woman
- Oslo Davis
- Paul Callaghan
- Read, Think, Write
- Right Now
- Sleepers Publishing
- Sorrow at Sills Bend
- The Stella Prize
- Tom Cho
- Wheeler Centre