Author: Karen Russell
Publisher: Vintage Books (division of Random House, 2011)
Rating: 4 stars
When I hear the term “magical realism,” I mostly hear magical. Swamplandia! fits snugly in this genre, but there’s definitely a lot of real going on.
Ava Bigtree comes from a family of alligator wrestlers who live in a swamp and run a sort of theme park (Swamplandia!). Her mother Hilola Bigtree is the star attraction of Swamplandia!–she periodically dives into a giant pool of alligators and swims to the other side all-the-while avoiding their bone-crushing jaws. At 13, Ava is already learning how to wrestle alligators and swim with them.
Sadly, Hilola’s strength is no match for ovarian cancer. With the star attraction gone, no one visits Swamplandia! and they have to shut the park down.
Hilola’s death scatters the family. Kiwi, Ava’s brother, leaves for the mainland where he works for the rival park The World of Darkness. The Chief (Ava’s dad) leaves the island to find work and/or Kiwi. Ava and her sister are left alone on Swamplandia!. Ava starts raising a red alligator in secret, which she thinks will save the park. Her sister, Ossie, starts dating ghosts and staying out all night.
One night Ossie elopes with her ghost boyfriend to the underworld. The same night Ava meets the Birdman and begins a journey through the swamp to find her sister. The Birdman turns out to be a total creeper. I was a little suspicious of him, but I think I was as shocked as Ava at what happened.
I wanted to punch him in the face and feed him to the alligators.
The novel is told from Ava and Kiwi’s point of views, and the style is very different for each of them. Ava is stubborn and determined and desperately misses her mother; Kiwi is smart and socially awkward and trying to grow-up. They both want to save the park and their family, but find it impossible to do so.
Karen Russell balances fanciful components like alligator wrestling/ghosts with real-life terrors and disappointments. It’s not a happy book by any means, but Russell is clever and often funny.
I loved Ava! She is probably my favorite character of the books I’ve read this year.