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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What I'm Reading: Swamplandia!

I recently finished the heralded Swamplandia! by Karen Russell.  This is one that I felt lived up to the hype.  But a disclaimer here, Swamplandia! is exactly the type of book I adore:  dark, odd, completely character driven (almost without a plot really), quirky, and just plain fascinating.

This book is more of a character sketch of a family in transition, during said transition, than it is a typical story.  The plot follows the Bigtree family, owners of a shabby alligator wrestling tourist attraction called Swamplandia!, deep in the Ten Thousands Islands of the Florida Everglades.  When we meet the Bigtree's things have taken a grave turn for the worse.  The mother, the star of the show, has recently died of cancer and their grandpa has just been put into a nursing home.  Left is the father, Chief, and three siblings: oldest brother Kiwi, middle sister Osceola, and our main narrator, 13 year old Ava.  We also do get some alternating view points from Kiwi when he goes off to take a job at an amusement park on the mainland.

The story stretches over a few months period as the family completely falls apart.  Chief goes to the mainland in an effort to raise funds to save Swanplandia, Kiwi leaves, Osceola tires to elope with a ghost, and Ava goes on an adventure to try to save her sister, getting more than she bargained for along the way.  Each must come to terms with their grief and face reality; some just take longer than others.  As the novel ends, they have been reunited and there is a plan to finally move forward again as a family, albeit probably without Swamplandia!.

This "slice-of-life" quality of the story is one of the reasons someone would either love or hate this novel.  All we see is this transitional period.  As readers we do not see the glory days of the past or know what will become of the Bigtrees once they are reunited.  We are just along for the ride during the most trying period of their lives.  I enjoy this type of book.  It is more like a big character sketch; however, many readers will be frustrated by the lack of a clear plot.

This novel's sense of place is the next big appeal.  Russell nails the descriptions here.  I could feel, see, smell and hear the Everglades.  She meticulously describes the islands, the waterways, the vegetation, the animals, the humidity....everything.  I felt like I was there.  It is beautiful and secluded, but also sinister and creepy.  She relayed that dichotomy perfectly.  It almost made me want to visit.

The time period here is unclear too.  It seems like it is set in the recent past, but that feeling could be from their isolated home too.  No matter when it is supposed to be set, the story has a timeless feel which I enjoyed.

Other key appeals are the methodical pace, the magical feeling of the story without any actual supernatural elements, the two adolescent narrators, and the open ending.  This is a character centered story about loss, mourning, and independence.  It is ultimately about growing up and being forced to face the real world.

Before I finish, I should also say that there is one fairly disturbing scene involving Ava in the last third of the book.  It is not graphic, but it is upsetting.  It may taint the book for some readers.  I thought it made sense and pushed the novel from the magical realism realm firmly back into the cold hard truth.  I thought it made sense as a symbol of Ava's maturation from dreamy to serious.  Although I wish she could have been spared the hurt, I think the story needed it as a plot development for the reader to believe that she too was ready to move on.  Everyone else in the family had their reality check moments, hers was just the most disturbing.

Three Words That Describe This Book:  slice-of-life, sense of place, quirky

Readalikes:  I have been suggesting Swamplandia! to my readers who enjoyed The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff.  Click here (and scroll down) to see my report on when I read this novel.  Also from that report, I would also suggest these readalikes for Swamplandia!:
But in terms of readalikes matched by the overall appeal of The Monsters of Templeton, I would suggest 3 novels: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield which is a Gothic novel that also recounts a twisted family history (click here to see my take on this novel); Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl in which a Yale Freshman (with a narrative voice eerily similar to Willie's) recounts her life history as if it were a class in Western Literature including her interesting family history and the death of a high school teacher (again, click here to see my take); andThe Stolen Child by Keith Donohue which is a magical tale of a 7 year-old who is kidnapped by a pack hobgoblins to be replaced by one of them. It is the story of the two boys' experiences and their concurrent struggle to find where they came from.
Two other novels that come to mind are Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer and Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright by Steven Millhauser.  Both are quirky, slice-of-life novels about times of transition involving young people.  These two novels also happen to be 2 of my favorites of all time.  I don't think Swamplandia! is in that tier for me, but it was very good.

If you loved the setting and want to read more books set in Florida, no one describes the place better than Carl Hiaasen.

For nonfiction, try Washington Post writer Michael Grunwald's The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise.  It is the perfect book for people who want to learn more about the region depicted here.  It received starred reviews when it came out in 2007 and Grunwald is an award-winning journalist.  We even own it at the BPL.

I was also reminded of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession which also takes place in the Everglades and has a similar magical, timeless feel to it.

Look for more reviews of What I'm Reading the rest of this week leading into the holiday weekend.

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