Review of “Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell

Note: I wrote this review, but Jim and I both read the book, so Jim added his own evaluation, which, of course, once again differs markedly from mine.

I read a lot of dystopic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and enjoy it very much. Disastrous things happen, but they are set in futuristic landscapes that are far removed from “real life.” Then there are books like this one, in which disastrous things occur that really could happen. That’s not so easy to distance myself from. Moreover, in this book they happen to a very dysfunctional family, the members of whom, however, love each other a lot. Still, that means this book combines two of my most unfavorite things: realistic horrible things happening, and dysfunctional families. So I cringed a lot when reading this book, and had to push my way through it, but I’m really glad I did. It is quite unique, and even though I hated some of it, it is a haunting and memorable story.

Ava Bigtree is the thirteen-year-old narrator and appealing heroine of this novel. She has been brought up as part of a family of performers on a Florida Everglades island in a venue called Swamplandia!, which is an alligator-wrestling theme park. Her mother, Hilola, the star of the family troupe, has just died of ovarian cancer. Her father, “The Chief,” totally unable to cope, goes on an extended “trip” by himself, leaving his three kids alone in the now deserted Swamplandia!. Her older brother Kiwi leaves also; as the only functioning head of the family, he needs a job to help pay their debts, and goes to live and work at the rival theme park, The World of Darkness. Ava muddles through at home with her older sister Osceola (“Ossie”) until Ossie’s psychotic visions convince her to go off through the swamps on a “honeymoon” to the Underworld with a long-dead ghost.

Ava, now all alone, vulnerable, full of grief, desperate, and doggedly optimistic, is determined to rescue Ossie. She makes an understandable but most unfortunate choice in asking for help from a strange but friendly-seeming drifter called The Bird Man that she sees in the woods by her house. You just keep hoping this story isn’t going to end badly, and there really aren’t any indications on how it will come out, except for the fact that nothing seems to work out well for this family. But there are ominous hints aplenty from the symbolism: the Bird Man claiming he can guide Ava in his boat through the alligator-infested swamps to the Underworld [a clear reference to Charon guiding souls across the River Styx to Hell]; the ravens circling overhead; Kiwi’s job at The World of Darkness where customers are called Lost Souls, and so on. None of these are good signs. The suspense, the deft prose, and your desire for something good to happen to these kids keeps you reading, but you read with your fingers splayed over your eyes.

Discussion: The author has a talent for conveying heartbreak in mere glimpses of lives falling apart. At one point, Ava watches her father chewing an orange, peel and all, like a zombie, and she doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry:

Oh, why aren’t you trying?’ I thought in his direction. ‘Why aren’t you doing anything? Try. Pay attention. Be the Chief again.’”

When Kiwi (chapters about whom alternate with Ava’s) gets the chance to be a lifeguard at The World of Darkness (a step up from his job of cleaning toilets), he receives a cardboard coaster with a guide to “The Drowning Chain”:

“Lack of Education
Lack of Protection
Lack of Safety Advice
Lack of Supervision
Inability to Cope

Kiwi opened and closed the coaster-thing like an accordionist. Excellent, he thought, surveying the list. Check, check, check. It would appear that I am drowning right now…

And when Kiwi goes in desperation for advice from his grandfather, only to find that he is too lost to Alzheimer’s Disease to help him, he feels frustration and rage:

“Kiwi had a sudden urge to topple his grandfather, to dump the elder overboard – maybe that would shake something loose in there or reconnect a wire. What was the point of growing so aged and limp that your mind couldn’t make a fist around a name? He wanted [him] to hurt, to ache, to mourn, to howl, to push with the cooling poker of his mind into the old ash heap of what he had lost and scrape bottom. He wanted the old man to be depleted to that limit. Like the rest of us, Kiwi thought angrily. Like family.

There is some lovely wordplay too, in the descriptions of the ecolife, or in this passage, revealing Kiwi’s thoughts about what eternity would be like:

“Heaven would be a comfy armchair, Kiwi decided… You’d get a great, private phonograph, and all of eternity to listen to your life’s melody. You could isolate your one life out of the cacophonous galaxy – the a cappella version – or you could play it back with its accompaniment, embedded in the brass and strings of mothers, fathers, sisters, windfalls and failures, percussive cities of strangers.”

Evaluation and Rating by Jill

Evaluation: For aficionados of new literary voices, this author is definitely worth your time and attention. It is also an excellent book club choice, because there is plenty to discuss. [Our own bookclub evinced a markedly different reaction between male and female readers.] It’s a difficult story to endure, but that’s because you come to feel so much for this family. This impressive piece of writing brings to life characters who will lodge in your heart – the kids at least – making their heartbreaks and triumphs your own.

Rating: 3.5/5

Evaluation and Rating by Jim

I thought the story was more quirky than compelling. The characters were so unusual that I had a hard time identifying with any of them except Ava. The sense of foreboding for Ava on her trip with the Birdman to the “underworld” was much less intense for me than for Jill, which may be a function of my being a male rather than a female.

I also have a technical criticism of the book. The chapters in which Ava is the narrator are well done. Ava’s “voice” is the author’s voice. But the chapters centering on her brother Kiwi are written as from the perspective of an omniscient narrator, and I found it much more difficult to sympathize with Kiwi. Perhaps it was just too difficult for the author to construct an overview where both characters could be telling their own stories, but that would have provided a more consistent feel to the narrative.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., 2011

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24 Responses to Review of “Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell

  1. Caroline says:

    I have been tempted by this book since I first saw it mentioned but have read so many really mixed reviews that I’m still not sure but your review makes it sound very interesting.
    I got her short story collection which sounds great.
    I think her case is similar to Lauren Groff’s The Monsters of Templeton. The novel wasn’t as good as the short stories but still interesting as the voice was very unusual.

    • She definitely is unusual! I would say that I didn’t like this book in many ways. The first half dragged for me in spite of how innovative the plot was. But I was very impressed with the prose, and think she is a writer worth experiencing. I talked to a woman in my book club about it, and she too was terrified in the second half when this 13-year old protagonist goes off into the swamps alone with an older, very strange man. It was so interesting to me that my husband was totally oblivious to any menace. I think that white, straight men can go through life with such a more confident outlook, that undoubtedly translates into other areas of their lives.

  2. Sandy says:

    This book has been on so many lists of notable debut novels. EW absolutely loved it. And because it takes place in Florida, THE EVERGLADES, where I’ve spent quite a bit of time (my parents used to live down there in the winter) I don’t really have a good explanation for why I haven’t read it yet.

  3. I was never really tempted by this book for some reason, but I must say I love these “joint” reads by you and Jim. I feel like I now have a really good feel for this book 🙂 Thanks

  4. As a Floridian, I try to read notable books set in my home state. I bought this one last month, but haven’t gotten to it, yet. I’ve read some very mixed reviews, but I’m excited to see for myself.

  5. Since I don’t read Dystopic fiction, this is not a book I would pick up, especially if I can’t distance myself further from it. I recently read The Hunger Games and Catching Fire and, honestly, that was a stretch for me. However, I did enjoy your review very much.

  6. Jenny says:

    I’ve had mixed feelings about wanting to read this, but your review makes it sound interesting (though sad). With your ratings, though, I wonder if maybe I still shouldn’t bother. I think I have been interested mainly because it seems different but literary, it takes place in Florida… I don’t know, maybe I’ll get around to it one day!

  7. BermudaOnion says:

    I love these “she said, he said” reviews! I bought this book when it first came out and got all that buzz but have never felt compelled to pick it up. After reading your review, I think I need to give it a try.

  8. Barbara says:

    I love these joint reviews! But . . . I wouldn’t read this book if you paid me, and normally I’d do just about anything for cash. 🙂

  9. Jenners says:

    The book reviewers at Entertainment Weekly kept pushing this book and applauding it but I’d not seen a single blogger review until yours! Now I’m not so sure about it. I don’t mind sad and difficult but you both didn’t fall in love. Hmmm… Like these joint reviews though.

  10. I’ve long had this one my TBR but have hesitated because I, too, can’t cope with dysfunctional families in fiction. I love this split review — both of your comments really resonate for me and I suspect I’d feel the same. I’m putting this lower on my TBR as a result — I might try it someday, but I’m in nooooooooooo rush…

  11. Aths says:

    For some reason, I have been turned off by this book, not sure why, but I think the alligator had something to do with that. Not sure if I will try it now, but I should probably give it a try.

  12. Alyce says:

    I knew there was a reason why I hadn’t read this one. I keep seeing the cover everywhere and then having a vague recollection of reviews and an impression that it just wasn’t for me.

  13. zibilee says:

    From what you both have written here, this book sounds really disturbing and dark, which doesn’t bother me usually, but I don’t think it’s a fit for me right now. This one is going on the list, and I am planning on reading it when life is a little more calm and predictable. It sounds fascinating, but also very, very weird. I enjoyed this couple’s review a lot though, and hope to see more of them from you two!

  14. Julie P. says:

    I still don’t know what to think of this novel, but I appreciate both of your viewpoints. Very interesting!

  15. Wendy says:

    I didn’t love this one either, Jill … I too had a hard time with the bad stuff (especially what happens with Ava toward the end)…and I wish the entire story had been Ava’s rather than the alternating POV with her and Kiwi. I just felt like the whole thing didn’t come together completely. I like quirky books and characters, but in the end, I just felt so, so about this one. Great review!!

  16. Margot says:

    I don’t think this is my type of book but I always enjoy reading your thoughts. I also liked reading Jim’s thougjts today and yesterday.

  17. I’ve had mixed feelings about reading this book, but the idea of it as a television show sounds terrible to me tbh.

  18. Meg says:

    Hmm — definitely sounds like a different story, but realistic novels where tragedy and terror befalls the characters don’t usually jive with me! I’m just too skittish to get through them.

  19. Rita K says:

    Jill – you and Jim should do more of this joint reviewing. I like the review – and totally know that I would not like this book – dispite its literary value.


  20. Staci@LifeintheThumb says:

    I really enjoyed reading both of your takes on this book and how different voices are to male/female POV. I’m not sure if this is one that I will read in the future or not but your review left me wondering about the story.

  21. Ti says:

    I won a copy of this book in a book club exchange this past Christmas. I am okay with dysfunction and horrible things happening, so I am thinking I will like this one quite a bit.

  22. WOW! I would never have guessed how dark the book is considering HBO is doing it as a 1/2 hour “comedy” series!

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