This week I read Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. This book should have come with a warning label. It's like giving a person a cigarette and telling her: "This will help you relax, lose weight, and give you something to do with your hands in awkward social situations" without telling her that: "Oh! And they cause cancer, are addictive, contain nicotine and carcinogens, and can cause birth defects if you are pregnant." I found it very disturbing, and although the book flap gives a very broad plot outline, there is no indication at all about how dark this novel truly is.
The book is (for the most part) told from Ava Bigtree's point of view. Ava is fourteen years old, and the youngest daughter in a family of alligator wrestlers. The family owns an alligator theme park called Swamplandia! in a swamp near the Gulf of Mexico and out from Ocala, Florida. There they put on shows, conduct swamp tours, run a museum, and operate a diner. Ava's mother Hilola, the star of the Swamplandia! Gator Show, died of ovarian cancer the year before the book opens. Since she had been the big draw for tourists, business is way down. Ava's father Chief Bigtree retreats to the mainland to supplement their income as a result. The oldest sibling, Ava's brother Kiwi, abandons his sisters and gets a job on the mainland at their new competitor, a theme park called the World of Darkness. Since the World of Darkness' opening, almost all business ceases to exist. Ava's sister, Osceola, talks to ghosts and claims to have fallen in love with the ghost of a WPA dredgeman. He dies one of the sickest deaths I have ever read in fiction, and Osceola runs away with him to live in the underworld leaving Ava all alone.
What happens to Ava is nightmarish. I think that Karen Russell is a brilliant writer, and her sense of place is uncanny. The world she has created is fantastical, terrifying, and brilliant. Her descriptions of the World of Darkness theme park (where the patrons are called lost souls) are so bizarre and creative that it is worth reading the book just for Kiwi's coming of age story from his point of view.
I do have a bit of a problem with the inconsistency of Ava's voice. As a reader, you really get rooked-in to the fantasy bit about the underworld, as if Dante is waiting to guide you. What is fantasy and real in the book is a bit cloudy to me until the end, and I must confess that I am still not one hundred percent sure. The book at times reads like a fantasy, and maybe it is depending on whether or not you believe Osceola's obsession with the occult is a real gift (or curse), or whether or not she is schizophrenic.
I will definitely keep an eye out for Karen Russell's next book. I just wish I had not been so blindsided by Ava's tragic circumstances. I thought that this was going to be a fun spring break read; I could not have been more wrong. It is way to dark for that, so if you choose to read this book, you have been forewarned. If you would like for me to email you spoilers, I will be happy to, but I cannot post them.
Until next time...