- Series: Vintage Contemporaries
- Paperback: 400 pages
- Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (July 26, 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780307276681
- ISBN-13: 978-0307276681
- ASIN: 0307276686
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars See all reviews (679 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #27,337 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Swamplandia! (Vintage Contemporaries) Paperback – July 26, 2011
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Guest Reviewer: Carl Hiaasen
*Starred Review* Russell’s lavishly imagined and spectacularly crafted first novel sprang from a story in her highly praised collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006). Swamplandia! is a shabby tourist attraction deep in the Everglades, owned by the Bigtree clan of alligator wrestlers. When Hilola, their star performer, dies, her husband and children lose their moorings, and Swamplandia! itself is endangered as audiences dwindle. The Chief leaves. Brother Kiwi, 17, sneaks off to work at the World of Darkness, a new mainland amusement park featuring the “rings of hell.” Otherworldly sister Osceola, 16, vanishes after falling in love with the ghost of a young man who died while working for the ill-fated Dredge and Fill Campaign in the 1930s. It’s up to Ava, 13, to find her sister, and her odyssey to the Underworld is mythic, spellbinding, and terrifying. Russell’s powers reside in her profound knowledge of the great imperiled swamp, from its alligators and insects, floating orchids and invasive “strangler” melaleuca trees to the tragic history of its massacred indigenous people and wildlife. Ravishing, elegiac, funny, and brilliantly inquisitive, Russell’s archetypal swamp saga tells a mystical yet rooted tale of three innocents who come of age through trials of water, fire, and air. --Donna Seaman --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
Now that I'm done with this novel, I'm not sure I'm glad I read it. And it's as much my fault as it is that of its marketing.
First, I want to make it clear that author Karen Russell does indeed have prodigious talent. She writes with passion and energy, and there is not a page of this book that doesn't carry her florid stamp upon it.
It also has a great cover, and my paperback edition's dappled, textured surface makes it a pleasure to hold. And inside that cover are five pages of glowing reviews.
To be sure, one of the reasons I picked up this book was the teaser on the back cover: "As (the narrator) sets out on a mission through the magical swamps to save them all, we are drawn into a lush and bravely imagined debut that takes us to the shimmering edge of reality." So I should have been prepared for a "bravely imagined book." And, well, I got that...but I can't help but feel it has some major flaws.
First: as to her talent, there is much to applaud; there is an ethereal aura of fantasy to much of this. As her debut work it is remarkable...her words have a magic to them all of their own, an alluring quality that makes the words on the page seem more like ripples in a small sea, rushing by you as you read. She knows how to turn a phrase, and the florid, fecund swamp is a rich field for her to plumb, yielding a bounty of surreal images and dark magic.
Here is one remarkable passage out of a million: "What rolled through Louis' mind were like the shells of thoughts, a series of O!s, round and empty, like the discarded rinds of screams."
Or, "I would vanish on the mainland, dry up in that crush of cars and strangers, of flesh hidden inside metallic colors, the salt white of the sky over the interstate highway, the strange pink-and-white apartment complexes where mainlanders lived like cutlery in drawers."
Russell gives us the narrative mind of Ava, a spirited thirteen-year-old who is rooted within the detritus of the eponymous family-run theme park in the swamps of southwestern Florida, a park that is crumbling in so many directions that it is difficult to keep up. When her mother falls terminally ill, the holes in the fabric of her family begin to unravel into ruin. Her father submerges himself into the financial morass in order to stave off bankruptcy; her brother rebels and escapes to become part of their competitor; her sister believes she can elope with a specter and live in the underworld; and it has been left to Ava to rescue whomever she can.
Herein lies my biggest problem with the work: while I have no qualms about recommending her lyrical prose and her ability to transform the Florida swamps into a supernatural quagmire that deals out life and death in equal portions, I felt at times that the story took second place to the author's stretching her prosaic legs. There's no doubt that "Swamplandia!" is a terrific literary work; I simply felt her beautiful prose masks problems with the plot.
For instance: in Chapter Six Russell suddenly splits the story into two narrative threads. This seemed, well, odd to me...I could gather no real reason why this additional character's thread was followed and not any others'...they ALL keep secrets and are wounded by the family business. Additionally, this thread is told in third person, while the rest of the book is in Ava's first person.
Another problem with Ava's narrative is a simple one: from what perspective of age is Ava telling us this story? Is she twenty, an looking back? Is she an adult?
In addition, by the story's end there are several major threads that are left dangling, though I am reluctant to list them and spoil the book for others. Suffice it to say that Justice with a capital J is not dealt out, that much of the ending is unresolved, and so is the fate of key characters.
And, speaking of the ending, I felt there was a BIG problem with plotting, and a coincidence that bordered on the ridiculous -- when I read it I wanted to shout, "Come on!!"
I realize life can be like that, but there is considerable effort to paint an imagistic picture of this family, and just dropping the ball at the end did little for me. And note this, too: the tale turns grim, very grim, and you should be prepared. It's not at all what I was expecting, and I felt this harrowing development was never really explored any further than the very fact that it happened -- but with no aftermath. There was no closure or consequence for this event...it felt like the author just ran out of steam.
I do believe that this book is a singular achievement for the writer, and there are many who will admire her talent. Ultimately, this forms the basis of the praiseworthy comments meted out by those who will and those who already admire her, and while the book didn't work for me, I never felt the five pages of praise were "wrong." What you want out of the book is up to you, of course; I simply did not enjoy it as much as they did.
Most of the story is told in first person, by thirteen-year-old Ava. Some chapters are told in third person from brother Kiwi’s point of view. We never see older sister Ossie’s perspective. She is viewed at a distance through the other characters. These kids have had a most unusual upbringing in a family of alligator wrestlers on a tiny private island. They are loosely home schooled. Their only exposure to mainlanders has been those who arrive by the boatloads to the family’s theme park, Swamplandia! The star attraction is the mother’s dive into a pit of alligators. When Mom dies of cancer their world breaks apart, piece by piece. Ossie communes with ghosts and receives messages from the spirit world through her Ouija Board. She falls in love a ghost and they become engaged. It’s never clear whether there really are ghosts, or if Ossie has gone off the deep end. I suspect the latter. With their theme park failing, the father leaves to work on the mainland. Kiwi eventually leaves too, and finds a job at a competing theme park called the World of Darkness. Ossie elopes with her ghost. This leaves Ava completely alone in the deserted alligator park. She is approached by an odd character known as the Bird Man, who says Ava’s father owes him money. He discovers Ava is alone when she tells him how her sister has run off with a ghost. Bird Man leads Ava on a quest for the Underworld to find her Ossie, “before it’s too late.”
Each of the three children comes of age in their own way, separated from the others. The book is filled with clever symbolism, and I’m sure there are many symbols I did not catch.
Not everyone in my book club loved this book as much as I did. We were split 50/50 among those who loved and those who disliked it. So I can’t really say for sure who I’d recommend it to. But I will say, dare to give this book a chance. If you love it, you have found a brilliant tale that will overwhelm your imagination and stay with you for all time.