Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It took reading half of Swamplandia! for me to appreciate the story, let alone truly connect with it. Author Karen Russell keeps many things up in the air, including the very genre of the novel. Is it contemporary realism by way of a coming of age story? Fantasy by way of ghost story? Mystery by way of abduction story? To be candid, my chief worry early on was that the weakness was in me, not in Swamplandia!. Has a steady diet of TV and Internet made my attention span woefully short? Am I incapable of enjoying an expertly prepared, slow-boiling narrative?
Alas, the weakness was mostly mine. Using slow rising action, Ms. Russell seamlessly merges fantasy and reality. And she begs the question of which is which--especially for children. In retrospect, I should have drawn more significance from Stephen King’s endorsement on the novel’s dust jacket. He gives Swamplandia! a glowing accolade while simultaneously appraising it as “creepy and sinister”.
I say all that to say this; I wholeheartedly give Swamplandia! four stars. And if I was rating the quality of the prose alone, I would give it five. Ms. Russell is a world-class wielder of English. Even as some narrative choices bugged me, I rarely went a paragraph without being entranced by the way she arranged words and phrases. Experiencing this novel reminded me of how worthwhile it is to spend an evening reading excellent writing.
Where Swamplandia! exhibits a problem is in its larger structure, which sometimes feels out of balance. There can be no mistaking that Ava, a young girl left alone in the swampland of Florida, is the novel’s central character. She even narrates most of the story in first-person. Yet, not too far into the book Russell begins switching to third person for some chapters. She does this to develop a parallel narrative. While Ava remains in the swamp, her older brother Kiwi embarks on an urban adventure to save the family business, an old alligator-wrestling park. For a time, these narratives compete more than they complement one another.
Compared to Ava’s mystical adventure in the vast swamp, Kiwi’s plotline initially read dry and static. Frankly, I struggled to get interested in Kiwi for several chapters. But when a new personal crisis thrashed its way into his life, I began feeling the same connection to him that I already enjoyed with Ava. And the tension kept increasing. Nothing that happened to Kiwi and Ava in the second half of the book allowed me to feel ambivalent.
One of the richest themes explored in Swamplandia! is the give and take between old and young. Ava and Kiwi are ever vying with seasoned adults of varying repute. At times this generational tension reaches frantic levels. I found myself comparing the fictional struggle to a real-life frustration of mine. Of late, I’ve been feeling anger toward my elders. In particular, I’m flabbergasted by politicians--left and right--who claim to want the best for children. Yet they aggressively cut education funding before even daring to discuss scaled back funding for--I’m going to say it--old people.
For me, Swamplandia! evinces a hope that opposing individuals or groups can reconcile and jointly succeed. To do so they must strive to give as much, or perhaps more, than they expect to receive from the other. The characters in this novel who triumph do so by going to great lengths to aid others. It’s a tribute to Karen Russell that she has penned a novel rich in fantastical trappings that never loses its relevance to our real world--a world we all need to understand better and accept.
Bottom Line: I highly recommend Swamplandia!
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