Friday, March 9, 2012

Review: Swamplandia!

Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell: Teen girl's tale of gator wrestlers, ghosts, a birdman, and family. Another world, universal feelings. B+

From Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell:

Open quote 

Our mother performed in starlight. Whose innovation this was I never discovered. Probably it was Chief Bigtree's idea, and it was a good one -- to blank the follow spot and let a sharp moon cut across the sky, unchaperoned; to kill the microphone; to leave the stage lights' tin eyelids scrolled and give the tourists in the stands a chance to enjoy the darkness of our island; to encourage the whole stadium to gulp air along with Swamplandia!'s star performer, the world-famous alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree."

Swamplandia! is a tale about coming of age in one of those faded, family-owned roadside attractions from another era. In this case, it's Swamplandia! and to get there requires a ferry ride through the Florida mangrove swamps to an island "thirty-odd miles off the grid of mainland lights."

After the jump, my review.

Grade: B+

First, what I didn't like about Swamplandia!. Much of it feels padded. It's thirteen year old Ava Bigtree's story, but there are so many side trips into the lives of her sister, brother and father that a reader begins to wonder where the main story is going, if anywhere. I learned after reading the novel that it originally appeared as a short story. Short stories are hard to expand into novels without giving the impression of being padded.

Second, the writing feels more forced than natural. The language sounds like the result of a class assignment to use as many words from your vocabulary list as you can in a story, with extra credit for using original metaphors. It delivers this, but instead of highlighting the subject, the writing more often draws attention to the writing itself.

Now, what I did like. I'm going to sound like I'm contradicting myself by saying that, for the patient reader, the novel eventually does pay off. A real plot emerges, with the side trips converging to an exciting climax and satisfying conclusion. The ghost, the bird man, the other quirks and oddities that seem like gimmicks at first, end up as critical elements of the whole convincing world that is Swamplandia!.

Swamplandia! comes to life as a real place, a place out of the past, perhaps, but with entirely modern characters. The contrast between the faded but noble Swamplandia! and the modern but depressing World of Darkness theme park on the mainland is a metaphor for America's loss of its own innocent past, without ever sounding heavy-handed or preachy. The characters, especially Ava herself, are complex, three-dimensional beings, who change as they learn about the world and themselves as the novel progresses. What I liked most was how original the whole was. The Florida swamps and Swamplandia! itself are places completely foreign to today's reader (to me at least), yet still so completely American.

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