Review: Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell

I had loved Karen Russell's collection of short stories (published in 2006) called St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and had been waiting for something new from her since then. You can imagine my joy when I learned that she had a novel coming out this February (finally!) based on one of the stories in her collection called "Ava Wrestles the Alligator".  I must admit that I was a bit dissapointed because would have prefered she had based her novel on the title story of her collection, as it was my favourite. Nevertheless, the world of "Ava Wrestles the Alligator" seemed to hold much promises with its swampy Florida setting, alligator-wrestling family and ghost-dating sister. Ava sounded like a young little heroine that I would be glad to know more about and learned to love.

Swamplandia! tells the story of an alligator-wrestling family, the Bigtrees, living in a swamp on an island by teh coast of Florida. It follows the decline of their park as suddenly things start to fall apart and the world that they know does not make sense anymore. It especially focuses on the three children: Kiwi, Ossie and Ava. Kiwi, the oldest, decides to leave for the mainland. Bright and sharp, he dreams of one day going to university, but first he must learn to navigate the world he was never a part of, learn to fit in. Angry at his father he also has to figure out what he wants and what he loves and how to keep these things to drift apart in opposite directions. Ossie deals with loss and change much differently. Having read a book on spiritualism, she starts casting spells and communicating with ghosts, leaving on "dates" during the night, meeting boyfriends. As the days pass, she finds herself more and more involve with her ghostly boyfriend, until the day she decides to elope to the underworld. Ava is the alligator-wrestler of the three siblings, and the narrator. She holds fast to the knowledge passed down to her by her mother. She finds herself flundering, grasping at the remains of what her life used to be, dreaming of restoring the glory of their park Swamplandia!, hoping that things could be normal again, but knowing that they seem to be irrevocably changed. Until the dreadful day where her sister leaves, and she decides to go after her, to rescue her from the underworld and the ghosts that haunts her.

I liked Swamplandia! a lot. Karen Russell's prose is amazing, full of details and imageries that made the world of the novel sharp in its clarity. I thought it was a bit too long, though. I felt that, in parts, it was heavy and harder to get through. Like dredging through the swamps the characters inhabit.
I was also a bit dissapointed in the way it was told. One of the thing I had loved about Karen Russell's stories was that they had an aura of mystery. A dreamy-like substance, that even in the most banal and reality-bound passages, made the edges of the worlds they depicted blurry and enchanting. They let you sometimes unsure if things were dreams or reality or a mix of both. On the other hand, Swamplandia!, maybe because of its lenght, is stark, and real. Too real sometimes. It is full of pain and loss and hope and strenght, but it somehow never gave me that feeling of otherworldliness that I was expecting. In fact, it sometimes grabbed me by the throat with its clear edges and sharpness. Not to say it is a bad thing, on the contrary it was often so so beautiful, not just what I was expecting.

Kiwi was my favourite character. This seventeen years old boy, caught between being a boy and a man, between the life he wanted on the mainland and the life and people he loved he had left behind. A boy who learns new words everyday, but never really pronunces them correctly, who builds bridges made of pastas to accompany a three paragraphs essay homework. And also Ava, brave, strong, little Ava, who did wrestle an alligator, but not the kind I, or she, was expecting. I think this story will stay with me for a while, even if I was dissapointed and it was a bit too long and too sharp. There was a truth there that appealed to me even then.


  1. Wow, this sounds so cool! I'm going to look up Karen Russel and get a hold of this book and the short story collection you wrote about. The three children sound so interesting! Kiwi sounds really cool, but I really want to read more about Ossie. I really like the ghost boyfriend thing (being a dreamer myself) so I want to see it play out, even if it's apparently a bad thing.

  2. Very interesting review. I have been waiting for you to review this book (as I knew you were reading it) because I am so intrigued by it and have been wonderfing whether I should buy it. After reading your review, I am also very attracted to Russell's short story collection. I think I will definitely be reading both her books! They sound too interesting to miss out on. Thank you. x

  3. I have this by my bedside but am holding off on it for the meantime. I've had a feeling since the beginning that this wasn't going to be as good as her short story collection. I know I will be a bit disappointed but I also know I'm going to like it anyway. I, too, waited so so long for her to write something new. I'm kind of sad she chose this story from her collection to write a full length novel on but oh well. Either way, I know I'll enjoy it.