Swamplandia! is Great

Hi friends, I read another book. This time, it’s Swamplandia! (shown above) by relatively new author Karen Russell. The title of this post is a giveaway, but I’m going to write about my feelings on the book, anyway. I tried to avoid reading any outside responses to this novel before or while I was reading it – sometimes I feel like it’s easy to become too influenced by reviews or reactions to a book. I know I tend to internalize some of those responses and start to read it all in a very different way. So I avoided everything about this book apart from the back cover description and some of the praise for it on the inside cover.

At the risk of repeating some of that praise, however, Swamplandia! is a fantastic book. The narrator is a young (can’t remember if they ever give an exact age, but I’d put her at about 13) girl who has lived her whole life in the foreign amusement-park swampland where her family lives and runs an alligator-wrestling tourist attraction. Her name is Ava Bigtree, and she is one of the most relatable characters I have ever read. The way that she fits with and talks about her family, for one, is charming and painfully reminiscent of being a teenage girl. I want to say that she’s a universal character, but I would hate to speak for everyone else.

Without giving away too much of the plot, (nothing you won’t find on the back cover) Ava has an older brother and sister and a rather eccentric, stuck-in-his-ways father. The family is kind of coping-without-really-coping with the recent loss of their mother, and everyone reacts in their own way. Ava’s sister Osceola (never was sure if I was pronouncing her name right in my head, but I ended up saying it like Ah-see-oh-luh… if you were curious) develops a weird infatuation with ghosts, and her older brother Kiwi is a studious, detached genius type who is the most realistic when it comes to the dire financial situation of the amusement park after his mother dies.

Maybe that’s partly why I felt I understood the narrator so well, because I do have an older brother who can be cold and who is also very smart, and a stubborn dad, but I think it can mostly be attributed to Russell’s spectacular writing. She creates the world of Swamplandia! on the fine line of harsh realism and satirical magic. The swamps of Florida are not a charming setting, necessarily, but told through the eyes of a young girl who has only ever known them and called them home, they take on an element of begrudging love and contentedness.

Her characters are explained somehow even better than the setting. Each character is carefully described both realistically, but then also through Ava’s eyes to give them the multi-dimensional personalities that they all deserve. They’re almost all contradictory, mostly having Ava’s best interests at heart but also sometimes perpetuating innate selfishness that will ultimately harm her. This whole review may not make any sense to those who know nothing about this book. If I were to sum it up, it’s a novel that touches on the unfairness of all facets of life, and horrible things happening to karmically (not a real word, but I’m using it anyway) good people, but told through an optimistic and unknowing little girl to ultimately show that maybe nothing is as bad as it first seems.

Reeeeal long review short, and the crucial point: buy, rent, or check out this book and read it. It’s more than deserving of it’s Pulitzer-Prize nomination and finalist title. ◊

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