Swamplandia! – Karen Russell

A literary whirlwind, Swamplandia! was on my ‘to-read’ list ever since Stephen King gave it high praise in one of his last few columns for Entertainment Weekly. It landed on his ‘10 Best Books of 2010‘ article, even though the novel wasn’t available for mass consumption until February 2011. Even though the story itself doesn’t really make any sense, but then again most great stories don’t really make any sense – they lend you an unique taste that remains with you well after you’ve read the novel. Those kind of books are diamonds in the rough as you may read thousands of books, but after you discard them, they remain with the slurried ore. The truly unique stories show some glimmers and perhaps some flashes as you read them, such as the sparkling writing that Russell produces. But I never truly felt ‘seized’ by this book, and yet kept drifting back to it over and over again during a couple of weeks until I finally finished the novel off.

Writing this review a few days after I completed the book (as is my custom, I prefer to let books sit as I ponder them before producing my commentary on them), the storyline still remains fresh and vivid in my mind’s eye. While the book’s avowed protagonist is Ava Bigtree, the young potential female alligator wrestler – I found myself enthralled by the treatment given to Kiwi Bigtree, the bookish older brother that sets forth on his own, away from Swamplandia!. The general premise of this novel centers on the Bigtree family that runs a roadside attraction in the Floridan Everglades area called Swamplandia! where the main attraction is hundreds of alligators that a member of the family wrestles or swims with. While no dates are ever given in the book for the current timeline, Russell does note several things that help us place the novel somewhere in the 1980s/1990s and possibly the late 1970s. I would place it as being in the middle to late 1980s to the early 1990s, as I did actually visit a Native American attraction like this in the Everglades in the late 1980s.

Then large corporate theme parks began popping up here and there, and everywhere else. The family-run and local “attractions”, especially the kitschy ones began fading away as fewer and fewer tourists came to visit. This is the path of evolution that Swamplandia! narrates, along with some obscure tidbits about Floridian history. Once you enter the land of Swamplandia!, you’ll probably want to leave after the first 50 pages, despite the stellar writing. If you complete the novel, the story will remain with you for weeks and small details endure in your memories. Overall, I’d give Swamplandia! a high rating, but with a caveat for readers that don’t enjoy literary novels to steer well clear – there’s no true purpose behind the story, even though it acts as a bildungsroman of the three younger Bigtree children. Some might enjoy the path Ossie took, others (such as myself) may prefer Kiwi’s journey, and I’m not sure if anybody would actually enjoy what Ava endured. Not all the loose ends are wrapped up in the ending, so for those that want a clean conclusion, this novel may not be for you.

Overall grade – A

The edition I reviewed was the first edition hardcover.

Edition: Knopf, 1st ed. Deckle Edge (February, 2011)
ISBN: 978-0307263995
Binding: Hardcover with dustjacket
Page Count: 336
Paper Quality: Deckled, matte feeling, poor structural integrity (Poor)
Original Language: English
Other Notes: Literary Fiction
Also available as a newly issued Vintage Contemporaries Paperback.

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