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Swamplandia!

3 May

2000irises: A review of Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Mr. Irises and I have a longstanding tradition which I never thought was unusual until I mentioned it to friends. We read books aloud to each other. I don’t know when we started doing this, probably over 15 years ago, and I can’t say how many books we’ve shared. Many. We read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy aloud. All seven Harry Potter books. The Chronicles of Narnia. So many more: The Blind Assassin, Tender is the Night, Love In The Time of Cholera, The Secret History, The Keep, etc. I can’t possibly remember them all. Over the past few years, though, we’ve become very spotty about reading together – small children can be so inconvenient. (Stop scowling. That was a joke.) In any case, we kept promising to get back to reading aloud. A little over a month ago we decided to give it another go and chose Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. What a fantastic book to come back to.

Swamplandia! is the story of the Bigtrees: a strange, insulated family living on an isolated island in the Ten Thousand Islands region of the Everglades. The Bigtrees have owned and operated the Swamplandia! alligator-wrestling theme park for two generations, but when its star attraction, Hilola Bigtree, dies of ovarian cancer, the park falls on hard times. That’s just the beginning. What follows is the tale of a fractured family, founded on a manufactured history, struggling to survive as their self-delusions unravel.

The book is primarily told through the recollections of Ava Bigtree, who is 13 at the time of the story. She’s been so thoroughly insulated from the mainland that the only “ordinary” people she has ever met are the service people and tourists who come to Swamplandia!. She aspires to the magnificent strength and bravery of her mother, Hilola, and after her mother dies, Ava takes it upon herself to rescue her family from ruin. However, a scrappy 13-year-old who understands alligators far better than she understands people is an extraordinarily vulnerable person. She shows amazing courage, but her blind faith is a terrible liability.

We also spend a good deal of time with Ava’s older brother, Kiwi – a 17-year-old who only wants to escape the confines of the island and go to school like a normal teenager. He reads voraciously and counts himself a genius, but when he defects to the mainland, he learns the hard way just how little he knows. Like Ava, Kiwi has no idea how to interact with other people. As he discovers just how much of his family’s life is a fiction, he becomes more even devoted to them while scrabbling for his own independence.

Other characters in Swamplandia! include the third Bigtree sibling: Osceola, a 16-year-old with a predilection for interludes with ghosts; Sawtooth Bigtree, the aged patriarch; Samuel (Chief) Bigtree, Sawtooth’s fervently delusional son who has raised his children to be fiercely loyal to their family and proud of their home; and The Bird Man, a spectral figure who ostensibly controls the avian life of the swamp. And Russell describes that swamp with such throbbing detail that it too becomes a quasi-sentient being, pulsing with life, both sustaining and treacherous.

Russell writes so beautifully that at twenty-nine, she’s already been singled out by The National Book Foundation and the New Yorker for her prodigious talent. Have a look at Swamplandia!’s opening sentences:

“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 thoroughly original, magical, and deeply suspenseful. Unfortunately, it highlighted one of the perils of reading aloud – it’s impossible to read a whole book quickly, especially when the writing is this rich. One can’t stay up all night, plunging desperately through chapter after chapter. After weeks of mounting tension, though, Mr. Irises and I finally caved in to the pressure and spent three hours straight reading the harrowing last 80 pages, desperate to reach the resolution. It didn’t disappoint. It’s already won the Bard Fiction Prize, and I think we can expect to see this book on more of 2011’s short lists of best fiction. Read it and tell me what you think.

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