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Karen Russell — Swamplandia!

Swamplandia! is the tale of the swamp-dwelling Bigtrees, owners of a small island where they wrestle alligators for plump tourists, all still grieving the loss of their matriarch in their own ways: Ava by attempting to fill her shoes, Osceola by dating ghosts, Kiwi by plotting his escape, the Chief, their father, steadfastly pretending that nothing is missing or wrong. Each of them will embark on their own epic journeys.

Very impressed with this debut novel. Her writing is lovely, and plays with language in such fabulous ways. The child protagonist avoids the trap that many authors fall into–making them either too precocious, or too annoyingly childish. Ava’s voice straddles the line nicely but remains convincingly her age. The magical realist journey that she embarks upon in Florida’s nightmare swamps is drawn in language that causes you to feel, to taste and smell the landscape vividly.

Scattered throughout were gorgeous lines that stuck in the memory. For example:

Loving a ghost was different, she explained—that kind of love was a bare branch.

I found myself constantly highlighting passages that I wanted to return to later. I found myself most interested in Ava’s story, less in Kiwi’s, narrated in sarcastic third person and populated by ridiculous cartoon character mainlanders. But Ava’s incredible journey is impossible to put down. My one qualm with it was that a traumatic event is brushed over rather quickly and I didn’t feel adequately addressed, but other than that I really loved Swamplandia! unabashedly. I’ve seen the words “quirky” banded about in other reviews, and “quirky” always seems to have some negative connotations. Not so here. The characters are odd, to be sure, but in their own strangely logical ways.

Recommended.

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