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This book is like some of those dishes that send a cheftestant home on "Top Chef": Great ingredients, the fish is cooked perfectly, the sauce is interesting, but the whole thing just doesn't come together.
The premise is great: A family has been running a second class alligator show on an island off the ocast of Florida. The family is like a jar of mixed nuts: the mother was an 18 year old runaway who fell in love with an older man and bought into his eccentric lifestyle; the father sees himself as the chief of a tribe of tough-as-nails warriors; the oldest son fancies himself a genius; the oldest daughter is probably schizophrenic; and the youngest daughter is naive (at best).
However, the plot is a mess. The characters take actions that make no sense. The book is an attempt at American magic realism. Now, we can leave the discussion of whether such a genre would ever succeed (is it possible for America to have mystical side? I don't think so), but even if it were possible, this book doesn't have the correct balance of mystical/reality. Instead, there seems to be a lot of coincidences, not magic, moving the story along. For example, the rescue towards the end of the book is completely manufactured, AND you will see the plot twist coming a mile away - as soon as the World of Darkness's new floatplane attraction is described. Also, the end of the book seems completely rushed - the reader will endure pages and pages of descriptive text about a two minute walk through the swamp, but when it comes to wrapping up the story, the author seems to have run out of ink. I don't really understand where they are exactly at the end, or how the characters feel about where they are at the end. While I didn't expect, particularly in this book, to have all my ends tied up, I felt completely cheated by the end of the book. (more on this is SPOILER section below).
What the book does succeed as is a number of excellent short stories surrounded by random plotting - the Dredgeman's Revelation is a great story buried amid the dreck, as is the story of Mamma Weeds.
NOW SPOILER ALERT: DONT' READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU THINK YOU WILL READ THIS BOOK: The thing that bothered me the most about this book, even more than the whole ridiculous Birdman section, was the fact that no one (including the author) seemed horrified by the father's behavior throughout this book. No one seemed to acknowledge that he abandoned his family which led to a series of disasters including attempted suicide, child abduction and rape. I understand that the suthor seemed to want the reader to see that the father was flawed, but that his family loved him anyway. Maybe they would only love him in an attempt to keep what was left of their family together, but at some point, a parent's abdication of his responsibilities reaches a point where they no longer deserve their child's love - certainly that point was reached here. I would compare this to Jeannette Walls' book "The Glass Castle" which asks the question: Is a woman crazy if she still loves the father who pimps her out? Maybe she is not crazy, but then that woman will lose the respect of the reader. So if Ava still loves her father after he left her and sister without food, money or supervision, to be preyed upon by child molesters, can we feel anything but pity for foolish deluded Ava? I don't think this was what the author was aiming for. I think she was aiming for us to leave this book with respect for tough little survivor Ava, and all I feel is pity for this pathetic misguided child.
1 member(s) found this review helpful.
Ava Bigtree and her family, the Bigtree tribe, live on one of the Ten Thousand Islands near Florida. They live in Swamplandia!, an alligator wrestling attraction that they all operate and perform in. This isolated area and unusual upbringing is all Ava knows until her mother's premmature death. Following her mother's death, Swamplandia! isn't able to pull in the tourists as it was before. Ava's father is delusional regarding the future of Swamplandia! and her sister, Osceola, is dating a ghost. That leaves Ava and her brother, Kiwi, to try to save their home. Kiwi runs off to the mainland to try and help with his father's debt. Shortly after Kiwi leaves, Ava's father heads out for a "business trip" leaving Ava and Osceola alone on the island to care for the alligators. Oscelola announces that she is eloping with her ghost boyfriend, Louis Thanksgiving, and disappears into the swamp. Ava leaves Swamplandia! on a search for her sister with a Birdman as her guide.
I'm not going to lie. I was disappointed with this. After reading St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves, I was left wishing Karen Russell had more for me to read; now I almost regret that wish because Swamplandia! just doesn't live up to St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves. Karen Russell is an extremely gifted writer. I'm just surprised at how much better she is at the short stories than the novel. She can write with this lacy language and spookiness in her stories that leads to an overall beautiful creepiness. In her short stories this is stunning, but in Swamplandia! it was just weird.
Swamplandia! is written in the same vein as Kelly Link's work. It's written wonderfully and I can't say enough for the character development, the writing, and the plot overall. Russell establishes the story, but doesn't seem to know where she's going with it. The swamp as the location helps with the meandering of her storytelling, but by the end, she's grasping at straws. Perhaps it's because she extended one of her short stories into novel length (with bits and pieces of her other stories from her previous book in here, too)? Perhaps I'm too finicky? I can't say.
I can say that this isn't bad - but it's not nearly as great as her previous book