The Bigtrees are the Barnums of the Alligator Wrestling world (yes, there is one). Well, not really, but for all intents and purposes, in Karen Russell's debut novel, SWAMPLANDIA!, this is very much a real place.
Out in the midst of a swampy island, Swamplandia! is the Bigtree family's claim to fame --- and 13-year-old Ava is having a heck of a time keeping it all in the family. After the death of her mom, a gator-wrestling Amazon named Hilola Bigtree, Ava must contend with the growing insanities of her clan --- her grieving dad, the Chief; her sister Ossie, who is seducing ghosts as her boy-toys; and Kiwi, her brother who literally goes to the Dark Side, working for a rival group called the World of Darkness to try to salvage the world in which the Bigtrees have grown up. It's a large task for a little girl and almost seems too much for the copious talents of Russell, whose short story collection, ST. LUCY'S HOME FOR GIRLS RAISED BY WOLVES, enamored the literary world several years ago.
It seems unfair to expect that the clan can make these eccentric claims on the world and seduce the reader as well. Some of the events here, especially Ossie's love of and attraction to dead men, are quite weird --- there's really no other way to describe it. And the carny atmosphere they grew up in, combined with the swampy Southern textures of Russell's language, makes the whole thing feel like a humid day in the city, when you keep dreaming about being on a cool beach and there's no real help in sight because you're stuck in the city working. SWAMPLANDIA! gets a grip on you and doesn't let go, even if you try to unleash yourself from its prodigious but uncomfortable delights.
Ava is a resourceful figure, much like Carson McCullers's Frankie or Harriet the Spy --- young in physical stature but old in spiritual heft. She learns that she can't control everything, including the monstrous creatures on whom the family park was created. Ninety-eight of them, to be exact, live on the property and require a lot of work. Most exhausting for Ava should be the endless Is he or isn't he of the Dredgeman, Ossie's supernatural love, a ghoul who may or may not actually be alive. You can't help but hope that Ossie grows out of this insanity pretty quickly. But without the aid of her dad, the AWOL Chief, Ava has her hands full.
There are many charms to this book. Karen Russell is a good writer, creating such vivid but discomforting details that you feel as if you are trapped on this island with Ava. Every time she talks about someone coming in on the ferry from the mainland, I was hoping that an adult with money and energy, and maternal or paternal love to give, was on the way. Usually, it's just drunken skunks looking for a snuff film. SWAMPLANDIA! is a lot of book crammed into its attractively-covered trim size (the cover illustration of a man in old-timey clothes holding aloft a child in a sailor suit while a giant alligator makes its way towards them looks like an Edward Gorey picture). Russell brings a strange and alien world alive with enough power to make me feel tired. Be sure you read it with plenty of water nearby.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on July 26, 2011