Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

I’ll be honest: I picked up this book because of its name and the alligator on the cover. Who doesn’t love gators? So I had no idea what to expect.

The Bigtree alligator-wrestling dynasty is in decline. Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park is losing business to a fearsome and sophisticated competitor called the World of Darkness. Mom Hilola Bigtree, the “swamp centaur,” was the star performer, adept at the arcane art of alligator wrestling. After Hilola’s death from ovarian cancer at only 36 years old, the park begins its slow decline. 13 year old Ava Bigtree steps in as the chief gator-wrangler but tourists are just no longer interested. Ava’s father, the Chief, heads to the mainland to attend “investment meetings” her sister Ossie communes with the dead and has ghost boyfriends and her brother Kiwi (real name) leaves his family a “Valedictory Note” expressing his “insuperable horror at the mismanagement of Swamplandia! and the poverty of our island education” and takes a minimum wage job at the World of Darkness to bail his family out of poverty. After the Chief leaves, Ossie runs away to marry her spectral boyfriend Louis Thanksgiving and Ava enlists the help of the omninous Bird Man to save her sister before she reaches the Underworld.

It’s a bit much. The book scores major points for originality but its originality is compromised by the uneven character and pace of the novel. But generally the big picture wasn’t the issue. It was the little things that frustrated me more. Like Ava and Ossie sitting in the kitchen with bare cupboards, complaining about how hungry they are, and then a few pages later they pack for a trip, stuffing backpacks full of the suddenly plentiful food in the house. Or like an emphatically described cloudless sky, which two paragraphs later begins to rain. Or conversations that have huge gaps, or other ones where a character thinks something but then the other character responds as if the thought had been spoken. Important or even trivial plot points revealed in the wrong order, or tossed haphazardly in the middle of the next scene. Banging us over the head with overly obvious truths, rather than letting us infer them. Terrible character inconsistencies. Lazy, lazy lazy. The worst part of the story is a big reveal towards the end of the book, so I won’t spoil it. Suffice it to say that something very awful and very unexpected happens about 260 pages into a 300-page book. Now first of all, that is way too late. Secondly, it is a pretty horrifying thing and barely dealt with. Thirdly, I guess it signals the beginning of the end of the book, because the author frantically tries to resolve all of the dangling plots in a matter of pages resulting in a lot of dropped threads, unanswered questions and an utterly unfulfilling closing scene.

Also, Russell is often guilty of one of my biggest writing pet peeves: using words that don’t make logical sense because they sound pretty. “The moon continued to whir,” or “Their wings panted towards us.” This kind of writing sounds good and poetic or whatever, but the more I think about what it’s supposed to mean, the more frustrated I get. And it slows the book down even more. (HOW CAN THE MOON POSSIBLY WHIR? SPACE IS SILENT.)

Long story short, I’d give this book a pass if I were you.

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