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Swamplandia! (Vintage Contemporaries) Paperback – July 26, 2011
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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.
After Hilola's death, Ava, the youngest, narrates the downward spiral of her family: oldest brother Kiwi goes to work at a rival theme park in a desperate attempt to alleviate the family's financial distress; middle sister Osceola discovers a book of spells and starts dating ghosts, and their father, Chief Bigtree, disappears to the mainland. Ava becomes determined to do something to save her family and especially her sister, who disappears on a journey to the Underworld to marry her ghost boyfriend. Ava ventures after her, into a journey that is more fraught with danger than she could have imagined. This journey is fraught with tension but it takes a sudden dark, disturbing turn that, without giving away any spoilers, felt like it had broken away from the original spirit of the book. The transition from magical realism to harsh, ugly reality was just too sudden to me.
The writing is very descriptive and quite lovely, but at times it almost feels like too much--or perhaps just feels misplaced, as sometimes it felt like you had to wade through a great deal of description to get to the plot. The switching of chapters between Ava and Kiwi's perspective also felt a bit jarring at times; it felt you'd just gotten into one storyline when you were yanked back into another. The novel itself has a very original feel while also recalling some other great works of literature; Ava's character is sometimes reminiscent of Scout from "To Kill a Mockingbird." Unfortunately while there were moments I couldn't put the book down, there were also moments I wanted to walk away from it forever, which made for a disjointed reading experience. Overall this scores major points for originality, but the originality is compromised by the uneven character and pace of the novel. It was worth the read, but didn't quite live up to the hype for me.