Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Review: "Swamplandia!" by Karen Russell

Swamplandia by Karen Russell was the book that I was most excited to read in the last half of the year, and I am glad to say it surpassed my expectations. I first heard of Russell when I bought the 20 Under 40 book published by The New Yorker. Her, along with Philipp Meyer, in my mind, show the most promise and originality from the twenty writers you will find in that book. This book has everything any kind of reader could want out of a novel: it has adventure, an exotic locations, a whip-smart protagonist and a dark second half that shows that real things are at stake, even in this magical world Russell has created. It is a book that people who love serious fiction will enjoy as well as those who prefer young adult fiction, which says a lot about the breadth of talent at play in this story. The main character is Ava Bigtree, the thirteen-year-old daughter of Hilola Bigtree, famous alligator wrestler, and Chief Bigtree, owner and operator of Swamplandia, the former Number 1 place for alligator wrestling in Loomis County. After the slow undignified death of Hilola due to cancer, the park has been in decline and is losing visitors at an alarming rate. Their situation becomes even more desperate when a new, gimmicky theme park, “The World of Darkness” opens in the same area. Ava’s two siblings, Kiwi and Ossie, handle the inevitable fall of their gator (they call them “seths”) empire in very different ways. Kiwi, her brother, takes the rationale approach by getting a job at “The World of Darkness” in order to support the family business. Her sister, Ossie, guided by a spirit manual she found on an abandoned boat full of books, decides to search the afterlife for a boyfriend, eventually fining one in a long dead dredgeman, which cause her to run away from the park to find a passage into the underworld to elope with the spirit. When Chief, the family patriarch, leaves unexpectedly, Ava is left to fend for herself, and her precious crimson-colored gator, in the increasingly threating and harsh search for her sister. The narrative is split between Ava’s search for her sister (assisted by the threating birdman, who wears a coat made out of feathers) and Kiwi’s life in the real world outside Swamplandia. Both places are harsh and confusing, not just to the siblings, but to us as well. The world that Kiwi escapes to really is a “World of Darkness”, where people care very little for you and will devour you at the first sign of weakness, much like a gator in the swamp Ava is navigating in her search for Ossie. The last half takes a serious turn, and the unique situations at the beginning only add to the reality and threat these people face as they try to save what no longer can be. To tell you anything else would be criminal. This book is pure magic. It really does envelope you as you keep turning the pages. You begin to smell the many living things that Ava comes across in her journey, and embarrassment and confusion Kiwi feels in the new world almost physically hurts. Reading this book is an experience, one where the normal world around you slows down, and you begin to want to stay in this weird world in inhabited by many odd and interesting things, which is what great writing and storytelling is supposed to do. I am glad I am in a place where I can admire a book written by someone who is less than ten years older than me without a hint of jealousy or need to debase his or her God-given talent. I hope you are too when you enter this world, because it is one of the most exciting and fulfilling ones you are likely to enter.
Rating: 5/5 

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