Karen Russell’s debut novel Swamplandia! does a few things right and, unfortunately, many things wrong. Taking place in the lush swamps of Florida, Russell paints an incredibly tangible landscape, with rich description and beautifully flowing sentences that truly give readers a sense of location and surroundings. The story itself follows the alligator-wrestling, theme-park-owning, Indian-posing Bigtree family – The Chief and his three children, Osceola, Ava, and Kiwi – as they work through the recent tragedy of their mother’s lost fight against cancer. But when a rival theme park opens up on the mainland and pulls all tourism away from the Swamplandia! park, the family is thrown into chaos. Buried in debt, the Chief leaves for the mainland on a “business trip,” just as Kiwi leaves to work at the rival theme park in an attempt to help keep Swamplandia! financially afloat. This leaves the two girls alone on the island – a grave mistake as Osceola falls in love with a ghost and proceeds to follow him deep into the swamp with promises of marriage in the underworld. Ava, the youngest of the children, takes it upon herself to find and rescue her missing sister. Enlisting the help of the strange island wanderer named the Bird Man, Ava sets off into the Thousand Island’s labyrinthine waterways, hoping to save her sister from the underworld and her very-dead fiancé.
Though the idea sounds good on paper, Russell unfortunately molds Swamplandia! into a slow, plodding piece, with an unnecessary denseness that rivals the murky swamps that her characters often find themselves trudging through. The principal narrator is Ava, who, as she is looking for her sister, finds it necessary to observe everything that happens along the way and relate its backstory to readers. At first, it works well – setting up the mood, giving readers a good sense of history and deep-seated mythos. But after a while, Russell’s generally lengthy sentences begin to wear readers down, with their thesaurus-like qualities focusing on details unimportant to the story and turning what should feel like a fast-paced race against time into a leisurely tour through the trees.
In addition, the story is told from two different points of view: Ava’s, which is told in the first person, and Kiwi’s, which adopts the third person perspective. This switch between the two is jarring and, rather than working to engage different parts of your mind, only manages to pull you out of the story again and again, ensuring that you never get too involved in Ava’s thoughts or Kiwi’s experiences. Russell also seems to have trouble reeling in her impressive diction to fit the characters at hand, specifically Ava. Ava’s internal monologues are very verbose and eloquent, yet her character shows no signs of such intelligence or maturity. Because of this, she sounds as though she is in her mid-thirties rather than thirteen, making it harder to really identify the character as the young, impressionable girl she is supposed to be.
Swamplandia! often finds itself bordering on “magical realism,” as many of the swamp myths and legends are unearthed throughout the story, but it never truly hits the mark – opting instead to attribute the possibility of magic to the overactive (and often dehydrated) imagination of Ava. Had Russell pursued this avenue, I believe the tale would have taken on a dirty, grimy, yet enchanted quality, which is what I was hoping for after seeing the cover. But as it stands, the story is dull and ponderous and it left me, four-hundred pages later, asking the question: “Is this really a story that needs to be told?”