Thursday, May 31, 2012


I finally got around to reading Swamplandia!* by Karen Russell. It. Was. Amazing.  I really loved it.  Why did I wait so long to read it????

What's really amazing about this book is that the whole story is really Gothic and strange, but what could have been a gimmicky story  is instead imaginative and exciting - it feels modern and beautiful.  I wanted to take a few days off work so I could just stay home and read it from front to back in one sitting (alas...)

The plot sounds bizarre: It's about this family who lives in a swamp in Florida and they have an alligator amusement park.  The father has created this entire mythos for the family - they call him the Chief and their family history is part of the lore of their "tribe" - the Bigtrees - a faux-native american history of warriors and alligator wrestlers.  Ava is the youngest, the heroine, she's an utterly charming pre-teen that fully believes her family's mythology - trained as an alligator wrestler herself, she's cunning, thoughtful and brave.  Following the death of the mother, the powerful matriarch whose show-stopping act in the Bigtree carnival is to jump into a pit of alligators and outswim them (that's not how she dies, by the way), the family comes unhinged.  Ava's older sister, Osceola, starts doing seances and becoming possessed by ghosts?  And her brother, Kiwi, in an effort to save their land, departs to the mainland where he starts working for a huge, conglomerate amusement park called The World of Darkness, which people enter through a giant Leviathan and travel (merrily?) through the various levels of hell (sound familiar?). 
This is not forever, Kiwi would think as he held his breath and plunged one of the World of Darkness latrines with the clown-nose suction cup. You are still a genius. You are just a temporary worker. That was the rank that Kiwi had been hired at - full-time staffers all had their high school diplomas. The HR lady had flicked her dry eyeballs over Kiwi's body and shouted (Why so loud, madam?), "Women's size medium!" into an intercom.  "And get me a temporary ID badge."
When Osceola leaves Swamplandia to travel to the land of the dead, Ava sets out to find her with the help of the "Bird Man" - a bizarre local character who wears a long coat covered in feathers who talks to birds and influences their migratory patterns.  Here the book turns into kind of a mystery - whether there really is a Land of the Dead and what expertise or motivations the Bird Man might have leaves the reader constantly wondering whether the story is honestly a gothic fairy tale or whether some reality lays below the surface of these fantastical events. 
Each house had a shadow beneath it, a sort of liquid basement. Small waves rose midway up the platform supports and collapsed into a thin foam. The temperature dropped tens of degrees whenever we poled beneath a house. Above us, the rotten planks and greenish white crossboards looked like they'd been nailed shut by some lunatic carpenter - I saw the glint of what seemed at a distance to be hundreds and hundreds of nailheads. Barnacles. Not nails but shells, dark red horns spiraling out of every surface.
Like any good Florida novelist, Russell's book includes more than a little information about Florida's amazing ecosystem and the detrimental influences that have effected it over the years.  The Ten Thousand Islands area, in the Everglades, sounds like America's last nearly-untouched territory - a wild place, history fraught with unthinkable events and characters (especially to a relative northerner like myself). 

Russell's writing is fresh and often hilarious, underlaid with a consistent, sophisticated prose by turns hyperbolic and gorgeously metaphorical without ever venturing into the domain of overworked language (how she does it I wish I knew!)

*PS, this is the second book I've read this year with an exclamation point in the title.

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