Saturday, May 19, 2012

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Three children visit separate Hells after their mother’s death

The story is about the Bigtree siblings, left adrift after their mother’s death devastates them emotionally and economically.  Their mother, Hilola Bigtree, was the star attraction alligator wrestler at Swamplandia!, the family business. When she dies, the tourists stop coming.  The novel is about what happens next.

Why didn’t I like this more? It sounded right up my alley – Ava Bigtree, the 13 year old alligator wrestler/narrator in a tale where she must descend into the world of the dead to rescue her beloved older sister Ossie who happens to have a date to marry a ghost. And yet, I couldn’t emotionally connect with Ava. The relentless whimsy of the opening section bored me. I much preferred the third person anarchic narration of her brother Kiwi’s adventures on the mainland.

I think I was not drawn to Ava because Ava did not have an internal conflict or struggle to match her vivid external struggle and journey through the swamp. She didn’t feel vulnerable and any vulnerability she possessed felt imposed on her.

The novel was slow going at first, but then I started to recognize the outlines of book’s majestic architecture and got more excited. But there never was a payoff. We had a scarlet alligator, a Birdman who can visit the dead, a rich heiress rescued from a pool of blood – and none of these truly eccentric and great details built to a conclusion. When something terrible happened to Ava near the end of the book, I didn’t care. The novel never came to an emotional climax for me. In the final section, the matter of fact explanation for the mysterious events put us 100 percent back in the world of reality. Apparently all the magical happenings stemmed from Ava’s gullibility and Ossie’s chemical brain imbalance.

It was a love poem to Florida, I’m pretty sure. That part worked. And I loved the fact that all the alligators were called Seth. But reading this book frustrated me.

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