Book Review: Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Every summary or review that I saw about this book in the run up to reading it (which, admittedly, wasn’t many) cast it as a “Florida is weird, battle of the amusement parks” book. While those elements are certainly present, they are little more than a backdrop to a character-driven novel of grief and confusion, with some Southern Gothic overtones. Russell’s writing is lyric and beautiful throughout, often infused with a twinge of dark humor, all of which makes it a pleasure to read.
The story revolves around the Bigtree family, a self-styled “native tribe” who runs the titular alligator park on an island in the last bit of Florida’s great swamp. The mother, Hilola, is the star of the show, and when she dies of cancer, both the park and family begin to fall apart. There is something inescapable about the parallel paths of slow degradation. Just as the cancer wasted a once vivacious woman into nothingness, so too does her absence bleed the life and cohesion out of Swamplandia! and the remaining Bigtrees. Chief Sam Bigtree (dad) and his pseudo-intellectual son Kiwi both leave the island in a pitiable and desperate search for income which will save the park. They do so separately, hiding from one another, but are nevertheless walking the same road. Meanwhile daughters Osceola and Ava, left alone on the island, stumble their way into searching for love in all the wrong the wrong places (to paraphrase the ’80s). While their searching goes in very different, very strange, directions, they are both casting about for answers and affection without the guidance of their parents.
More than anything else, this book is about loss and lack and the misguided lengths people will go to deal with their grief. While Russell focuses mainly on Ava (who narrates in first person) and Kiwi (whose story is told in 3rd), some sort of decline is as present in all the main characters as it is in the park itself. Notably, if there had been a strong guiding hand in the Bigtree family, each character could have been easily brought back to center. I suppose Hilola was that force, but the reader doesn’t really get the chance to see that influence in action.
As much as I enjoyed reading the book, the ending was simply too pat to be satisfying. Without going into spoilers, I’ll just say that it was entirely too convenient for the story which had preceded it. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the various narrative threads and gone too far in different directions for Russell to swiftly weave them back together. It wouldn’t have been an easy task, writing a more complex conclusion, but the entire novel would have been strengthened as a result.