REVIEW by Megan King



by Karen Russell

Ava is the youngest member of the famous Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty. She has spent her whole life on the same swamp-locked island, working for the family business. Swamplandia is the number one gator-themed park in the Florida Everglades and the only world Eva has ever known. But the star of the show, Ava’s mother Hilola, has just died. Her father, Chief Bigtree has disappeared on a ‘business trip’. Older brother Kiwi is working at a rival theme park, and the tourists have stopped coming. Left to fester in the decaying park with a sister who’s threatening to elope with ghost, Ava faces a terrifying journey into the depths of the swamp to save everything she has ever known.

The Bigtrees first appeared in author Karen Russell’s critically acclaimed collection of short stories, St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Russell’s short fiction credentials are obvious when reading the novel. A swamp theme park run by a family of alligator wrestlers creates the kind of surrealist tableaux that has flourished in flash and microfiction. The challenge lies in developing this initial image into a larger narrative. Russell achieves this by imposing the wider world onto the family. In Swampladia, commercialism invades the family space and confronts the gothic fairy tale the Chief Bigtree has created for Ava and her siblings.

This modern world is always portrayed as far more intimating than the snapping mouths of the Gators that they have grown up alongside. The spectre of Swampladia's rival, World of Darkness, looms over the Bigtree’s archaic park. Kiwi soon gets lost in this modern Leviathan (literally and metaphorically; the park’s main attraction is a gargantuan water ride in the shape of the biblical whale). You would expect Kiwi’s sections of the novel to offer some respite from the surrealism of Swamplandia, since he is so desperate to find normality. However, the shift to third person simply shows the bizarre nature of the mainland in greater clarity. Exposed to the baffling nuances of dating, work and friendships, Kiwi offers the reader the most complex and satisfying narrative journey. On Swamplandia, he was the pillar of normality. On the mainland, he is forced to question the exactly what ‘normal’ entails.

His sister, the glamorous Ossie, has the most overtly sentimental sub plot in the novel. She dabbles in spiritualism in search of her mother but conjures instead the spirit of a long dead Dredgemen whose tragedy lessens her own. Ava initially gets caught up in her sister’s adventures in the supernatural and even sets off on her own. This establishes the almost magical realist tone that is prevalent throughout. In pursuit of her sister, Ava journey’s into the Underworld of the swamp without entirely believing in its existence. It is her narration, with its reluctant cynicism, that takes the edge off what could be a whimsical and even twee novel. Her voice, although initially childlike, is the most objective. She sees her family and home for what they are. Alligator wrestling aside, the Bigtrees are much like any other family in the midst of a loss. There is a family tragedy, wrapped up in the heat and murky history of the swamp.

Following in a long tradition, Russell turns the landscape into a character. Although it is overtly dangerous and inherently mysterious, it offers the reader a tangible reality. While the characters impose their own, frequently supernatural meanings onto it, the swamp remains omnipresent and ambivalent. Russell’s seductively rich descriptions, paired with the bloody heritage of the swamp, create a remarkable backdrop to the narrative, showing the reader so much without ever needing to tell them outright.

In Swamplandia, Russell has taken the intimidating leap from short fiction to a full length novel with a great deal of creative flair and narrative confidence. A premise that could have become irritating is grounded in a well-wrought drama. Although the plot is, at times, predictable, Russell still manages to knock you back with a few choice twists that give the novel a deeply unsettling edge. Intensely readable and darkly comic, Swamplandia marks Russell’s coming-of-age as an author.

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