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Karen Russell – Swamplandia!

March 30, 2012

31. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (2011)

Length: 400 pages
Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Started: 17 March 2012
Finished: 20 March 2012

Where did it come from? / Why do I have it? Christmas present from a friend. As he put it: “Alligators!”
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 28 December 2011.

With a family like
that, the gators are the least
of Ava’s worries.

Summary: Ava Bigtree and her family live on an island in Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands, where they have an amusement park called Swamplandia!, where the headliner is Ava’s mother wrestling alligators. But when Ava is 12, her mother is killed (by cancer, not by an alligator), and the tourists begin to dry up, preferring the new World of Darkness theme park that’s opened on the mainland. The family begins to fall apart – Ava’s father has a plan to save their family home and disappears to the mainland to try to make that happen, Ava’s older sister Ossie is convinced she’s in love with a ghost, and her brother Kiwi leaves the island to try to earn a living only to find how little he’s prepared for the real world. And despite being only 12, Ava must find a way to hold them all – and herself – together in the face of loss and almost certain ruin.

Review: Not to make sweeping generalizations, but to make a sweeping generalization: books like Swamplandia! are why I tend to stick to genre fiction, and why I’m often a little wary of dabbling in contemporary “literary” fiction. (Leaving aside my issues with that term, and its pretension and utter lack of exactness, but y’all know what I mean.) I didn’t really care for this book, although I could certainly tell it was beautifully constructed. Russell uses the language in some very interesting ways, and while some of her descriptions occasionally went a bit over the top, and not all of her metaphors worked, there were also a lot of times when the prose was resonant and beautifully descriptive. She’s also adept at creating an uneasy tension, particularly in the later half of the book (more on this later.)

My main problem with Swamplandia! is that I have limited patience with with novels that star quirky families who have to hold themselves together while everything goes to hell, and that’s pretty much what this one was. There’s a plot that develops in which Ava goes off with the strange Birdman to save her sister, who’s eloped with her ghost boyfriend, but that doesn’t even crop up until at least halfway through the book. It also seems to go on forever without much actually happening, partly because I didn’t see how Russell was going to resolve the suspense of what was happening without going the obvious (and unpleasant) route, and partly because I didn’t see the point of the uncomfortable-making parts, and how they added to the story as a whole.

Maybe that’s my real problem: I just didn’t get what exactly Russell was trying to say. I got what she had to say about the swamp and its ecology and the plants and animals and people that live there and its fragility both as an ecosystem and a way of life. (Trust the biologist to get the message about the swamp, heh.) And it’s clear that in the non-swampy parts of the book, Russell was trying to say something about about family and the loss of innocence and the nature of hell, but the message didn’t reach me, and by the end I was left wondering what exactly the point of the preceding 400 pages had been. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: It reminded me pretty strongly of Elizabeth Kelly’s Apologize, Apologize! (and not just because of the exclamation point). I think people who enjoy contemporary fiction in the vein of terrible childhoods and quirky family circumstances will have a better time with Swamplandia! than I did.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Buried in Print, Nomad Reader, Page 247, Rhapsody in Books Weblog and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Our mother performed in starlight.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 13: “The camera pulled back to reveal imbricating parking lots, a whole spooling solar system of parking lots.” – overlapping in sequence, as tiles or shingles on a roof.
  • p. 23: “The wet season was a series of land-versus-water skirmishes: marl turned to chowder and shunted the baby-green cocoplums into the sea; tides maniacally revised the coastlines.” – a friable earthy deposit consisting of clay and calcium carbonate, used especially as a fertilizer for soils deficient in lime.
  • p. 29: “If you put the fan on high in his bedroom these little powder blue cards with funny words on them flew everywhere: FATIDIC [adj], OPPROBRIUM [n].” – prophetic.
  • p. 93: “The irony here was that Leo’s real-life head was also huge, the size of a moai; Vijay sniggered that the foam domehead was probably a snug fit.” – any of the gigantic carved stone figures found on Easter Island
  • p. 142: “When next they appeared they were lovers, their bodies turning in a silly ballet, black volutes beneath the lily pads and the purple swamphens.” – a spiral or twisted formation or object.
  • p. 173: “As if someone had planted them around the World of Darkness, Kiwi thought, thinking for some reason of The Spiritist Telegraph. Those diagrams in the appendix of sacerdotal magic.” – of priests; priestly.
  • p. 229: “Every twelve minutes a high-speed fan blew pressurized air into the caissons, transforming the Lake of Fire into a turbulent wave pool.” – a structure used in underwater work, consisting of an airtight chamber, open at the bottom and containing air under sufficient pressure to exclude the water.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2012 8:26 am

    It’s interesting that you didn’t like the book for the reasons I did like it — quirky family struggling. I also had a lot of problems with the book’s contruction and pointlessness, but overall I was drawn to Russell’s writing. The book made me feel uncomfortable, which I think it was supposed to. But in the end, I wanted to like it more than I did. Glad to read another take on it.

    • April 18, 2012 5:17 pm

      Alena – It’s not so much that I mind the quirky family struggling, exactly, it’s just that I rarely feel that it’s enough of a plot to base an entire book around. But I hear you on the construction and pointlessness issues, for sure.

  2. March 30, 2012 9:06 am

    I read the short story this was based on, and enjoyed it very much. However, I also thought that I would grow annoyed with that quirkiness if it wasn’t levied with some normalcy too. There has to be a mix of the two, for it to be real (at least for me). I haven’t picked up Swamplandia for that reason. I love her short fiction though, it is striking and suits her dreamy quality she has. I will give Swamplandia a go at some point. I enjoyed your review, Fyrefly.

    • April 18, 2012 5:18 pm

      Susan – I didn’t read the short story itself, but I think it’s incorporated into the book, and if that’s the case, I did like that part. There is some normalcy, and those were actually the parts I liked best, but the way it was all put together just didn’t work for me.

  3. March 30, 2012 10:18 pm

    Contemporary fiction can be a crapshoot. There’s a fine relationship between emotional attachment and narrative events, and I think writers who identify as writers of “literary fiction” (yurgh, that term!) tend to lean heavier on internal stuff than external. A wild generalization, of course, but for such an inexact “genre”, I can’t come up with aught else…

    • April 18, 2012 5:21 pm

      Omni – I know, “literary fiction” as a term is terrible, but I don’t have any better way to describe it, and it’s a definite thing that I can recognize it when I come across it, even if I can’t satisfactorily describe it. Internal vs. external works, but I typically pick it out as a emphasis on prose over story, and sometimes prose at the expense of story.

  4. Amritorupa Kanjilal permalink
    March 31, 2012 5:30 am

    I have been looking forward to reading this book, but that is because i was under the impression that it was about an adventure in a swampland theme park, which sounded a bit like Something Evil This Way Comes… I don’t think I’ll enjoy it very much now…

    • April 18, 2012 5:22 pm

      Amritorupa – I did like the description of the park, and could definitely picture it very clearly… but it’s not really an adventure story, no.

  5. buriedinprint permalink
    April 11, 2012 6:29 pm

    Isn’t it a strange feeling, when you can see that there is something to admire about a book and you can see that other readers are wholly engaged, and yet you can’t quite connect? I’ve had that happen, too, many times. Not so much with this book (I went in with big expectations, because I absolutely loved the short story that was published in The New Yorker a few months before) but with others. Still, I’d rather that experience, than the sort where you just sit there shaking your head at the book wondering what on earth everyone else was talking about. Heh. (Thanks for the link to my thoughts on this one.)

    • April 18, 2012 5:37 pm

      BiP – Both versions happen to me quite frequently, where I finish a book, and my reaction is indifferent or even negative, and I see people gushing over it, and I have to wonder if we’re even talking about the same book.


  1. Book Review: Swamplandia! | The Indiscriminate Critic
  2. Brian Kimberling – Snapper | Fyrefly's Book Blog

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