Karen Russell’s 2011 novel “Swamplandia!” is not only a New York Times bestseller but also a Pulitzer Prize Finalist. Although Russell’s prose has a beautiful grace that is extremely difficult to find in novels nowadays, the book does not live up to its hype.
The quirky novel follows the story of Ava Bigtree, a teenage alligator wrestler who works at her family’s amusement park. In the beginning, Ava feels like she’s on top of the world. Unfortunately, her Mother, the glue holding the family together, falls victim to cancer and her whole world comes crashing down. Her father becomes more distant, while her sister Ossie refuses to leave a world she has invented in her head. Her brother, Kiwi, abandons the family. When Ossie unexpectedly disappears, Ava begins a journey to bring her family back together.
This novel is recommended to readers who are able to accept hints of fantasy in a “real world” context. Many readers, however, will find it difficult and irritating to grasp abstract ideas – such as spirits or ghosts – against a concrete setting.
Russell does a good job weaving Ava’s and Kiwi’s storylines together. There are too many minor stories, however, that are held together with only a thin thread of coherence. Specifically, there is a story of Kiwi going to night school. Then there is another story of Kiwi saving a drowning girl’s life. After that, Russell writes a story of Kiwi going to a casino and gambling. It is just too much!
Additionally, there are parts of the novel that are unbelievably hard to follow. Especially during Ava’s adventures, “Swamplandia” feels less like a progressing story and more like pages and pages of nice imagery and description. It gets boring.
Finally, the fantasy-like aspects of the book are disappointing. The book has sections about ghosts and magical swamps blended into the story. Consequently, it becomes confusing.
It’s hard to tell whether this novel is meant to be more fantasy or more realistic. Unfortunately, it is not completely successful at either.