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