At times reading author Karen Russell's first book-length work of fiction, Swamplandia!, is like a Stephen King inspired naturalist's guide to the flora and fauna of southwest Florida --- swampy, spooky, and full of shadowy demons both real and imagined. Steeped as it is, however, in a sense of place, particularly a place so few of us have visited or even desire to visit, its strangeness becomes almost exotic and arresting. We want to go there, if only in our mind. Russell is our willing tour guide.
The Bigtree family is the owner-operator of Swamplandia!, a once popular gator wrestling theme park on an island off the gulf shore of southwest Florida. I say once because we come on the scene when the star of the show, mother Hilola Bigtree, has died of cancer and the world of the Bigtrees is coming unhinged by both the external and internal fallout of her death. The tourists stop coming, leaving the park on the brink of foreclosure. The father, Samuel ("Chief") Bigtree, leaves the island for the mainland, for some mysterious "business." The three children, Kiwi, Osceola (Ossie), and Ava, who are to remain together, spin off in different directions. The oldest, Kiwi, a realist who seems to grasp their dire situation, leaves for the mainland, for a job and education, carrying with him unresolved anger at his father, at his mother's death, and at a place he has rejected. Sixteen year-old Ossie, on the other hand, has left reality, imagining the existence of spirits and ultimately leaving to marry a ghost. Yes, a ghost. And there's 13-year old Ava, our narrator, left alone, unsure whether to believe her sister or the internal voice of her mother. Lacking a father at the moment, vulnerable, she takes up with the eccentric, mysterious, and ultimately sinister "Birdman" on a quest to rescue her sister from the Underworld, poling their way through the swamps and canals to find her.
The strangeness of the setting and circumstances notwithstanding, the reader still finds much to identify with here: loss, misguided hope, and even family (albeit a dysfunctional one). This is a traumatized family dealing with their loss in some well-known ways: anger, denial, and even dementia. They lack faith, family, or friends from which to gain sustenance, no one to turn to except each other, lost but not alone, ultimately, in their lostness. As such, it is an appropriate novel for the post-modern. When their personal and family narrative collapses, when who they thought they were is no longer the case, they have no meta-narrative within which to anchor themselves, no story within which to find meaning. It is a story played out in the more normal suburban setting of everyday life around us. And yet by rooting this story in the unfamiliar and foreboding setting of the once wilderness of southwest Florida, in Swamplandia! Russell makes good if not great art, de-familiarizing the familiar and thereby bringing it home to us.
I do have quibbles. First, while allowing 13 year-old Ava to narrate much of the story allows a more intimate, personal telling, the fact is that Ava's voice too often sounds more like a twenty or thirty year old woman. (Perhaps more like the voice of the author?) Ava often provides helpful history or descriptions of place, helpful information but like nothing most 13 year-olds would come out with. About one escape from danger, she says of her mother that "[s]he was the muscular current that rode me through the water away from the den, and she was the victory howl that at last opened my mouth and filled my lungs." Winsome, metaphorical prose but not what I would expect a 13-year old barely teenage girl to say. Other times Ava sounds very much like a teenager, and her actions evince that as well. Admittedly, keeping an appropriate voice and telling a good story, particularly in the first-person, is a challenge. As a reader you can adapt, but you have to be able to suspend disbelief or even treat the voice as that of a third-person narrator. It doesn't quite work.
My other quibble isn't so much with Russell as it is with contemporary fiction in general. Books about loss, books which major in the underbelly (if not Underworld) of life abound, many much darker than this one. While such minor themes cannot and should not be ignored, it takes a gifted author to navigate the Swamplandias of life and write non-sentimentally about truth, goodness, and beauty, manifest even in the muck and mire of life's swamplands. Where can I find those books? And yet I can't hold Karen Russell to account for this. We are all guilty of a fascination with the dark, all too easily blow by the good.
Even with these reservations, I can recommend Swamplandia! for adult readers. In the end, Russell serves as a good tour guide both to a wild place of crocodiles and saw grass as well as the personal anguish of loss. To a greater or lesser degree, most of us will find ourselves in these wild places at one time or the other. Reading of it is a whole lot more enjoyable.