Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
I really wanted to love this book. I eyed it at B&N for over a year before I bought it. Swamplandia! is difficult to categorize, let alone summarize, but to put it in a sentence, it’s about the Bigtree family who run an alligator-wrestling amusement park on an island in the Everglades. The alligators at the park are all called Seth, which I thought was too great. The novel follows the three Bigtree teenagers: Kiwi, Osceola, and Ava. The setting is lusciously strange, and Karen Russell makes it a credible world. Her writing is truly incredible – nights in the swamp are “dark and star-lepered.” This is a book about loss: the death of their mother, the gradual failure of the park; falling in love with ghosts; the search for missing sisters. There’s also a rival park, The World of Darkness, a sinister Charon-figure called the Bird Man, and a red Seth.
I got stuck in the swamp at the halfway mark, where Russell’s sentences still dazzled but the plot started to wane. There was a disturbing plot twist near the end that completely changed my reading experience and I almost stopped reading it completely. There’s no doubt that Russell is a gem. I found magnificent sentences in Swamplandia! that made reading it completely worthwhile (but which also fatigued me a bit). The novel is certainly off-beat, but in a cool way. It’s sort-of magical realism, sort-of gothic, sort-of coming of age. It’s funny, tragic, magical all at once. I admire its ability to transcend categorization, even if it sometimes made for an uneven narrative.
I think I loved the idea of Swamplandia!, and it got a lot of hype. But maybe this was like a it’s-not-you-it’s-me kind of reading experience.