Swamplandia!

Author: Karen Russell

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2011

I read it: February 2012

swamplandia

I made it a point to read this book based solely on the strength of Russell’s short story “Vampires in the Lemon Grove.” The novel had the tone and flow I expected and I made sure to read it at the proper pace: slowly. Russell is a master of descriptions and it’s enough just to focus in on sentences and paragraphs and soak them up. Regardless of the story, it’s easy to connect with phrases like “the salt and pepper shakers were doing little NBA jumps” or “a single note, held in an amber suspension of time, like a charcoal drawing of Icarus falling.”

The story holds, too. Ava (ah, I just now get it, Ava like a bird) and her wacky family are intensely painted on the page, and you do care where they take themselves so soon after the death of the mother. I could guess that some people think the movement is a little slow, but with alligator wrestling and ghost trysts and demonic amusement parks drawn as the backdrop to inner turmoil, it’s hard to think those readers have good reasons to think so. It is slightly unsettling when the point-of-view changes at chapter five, and it was a risky move, but it’s the only time it happens and it’s just early enough in the story to work. There’s another simmering frustration when you don’t know the rules, because the supernatural could be occurring in Ava Bigtree’s world…or maybe it isn’t. I’ll just say that as a reader I was satisfied how everything played out, and the rules ended up aligning with some major themes of the book.

There are some other cool angles Russell takes, such as paralleling the lives of Kiwi Bigtree and Louis Thanksgiving, and the entire inserted backstory of the latter character. The psychology of the kids fits given their confused sense of place, and I bought the plot points. Ava in the first person sapped a bit of the tension because you knew she wouldn’t die, but a clutch showdown occurred toward the end and satisfied, without which the entire premise might have seemed wasted. I have to mention that truly terrible editing undermines some of the subtle poetry, which is a shame because Russell’s talents really seem to lie in the details. Regardless, the words have weight: a flashlight language is “a sort of luminous pidgin tongue.” We read that “lightning sent down its white spider legs outside the dining-car windows,” “happiness could be felt as a pressure,” and “Kiwi and his father could sometimes meet at the intersection of their two angers, like neighbors drawing up to the barbed stars of a fence.”

So read it slowly, and, unlike me, read it during sticky July with the flies and the sweat and the heavy air as company.

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