Karen Russell’s debut novel, Swamplandia!, does well so many of the things good fiction does well that it’s easy enough to write off a few small problems. Russell’s short-story collection, St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves, promised a writer who could blend dark subject matter with a whimsical tone without becoming pretentious or twee. Swamplandia! more than delivers on that front.
The Bigtree family of rural, swampy Florida has been at a loss since the death of beloved mother and wife Hilola. The family’s swamp-themed tourist trap, Swamplandia!, has fallen on hard times without its star alligator-wrestler, and father Chief Bigtree isn’t always sure how to keep the park (situated on an island and cut off from the glittering city lights just miles away) running and take care of his three children, Kiwi, Osceola, and Ava, who are all grieving in separate, unusual ways. Dancing on the edge of debt, Chief heads off to the big city on the mainland to try to scrape together enough cash to keep the park afloat, leaving his two youngest daughters alone on the island. Kiwi, meanwhile, resolves to help his father out and takes a job at Underworld-themed amusement park World Of Darkness, Swamplandia!’s chief competition.
Russell’s narrator for roughly half the book is Ava, a 13-year-old girl struggling to piece together her life in the wake of her mother’s death and understand how her older sister, 16, can claim to be getting married to a dead man. As Ava embarks on a journey through the swamp in the company of a strange guide with possibly malicious intent, Russell’s ability to limit readers’ perceptions to match Ava’s is vital to providing beautiful descriptions of the swamp and building suspense. Russell so skillfully drops readers into Ava’s mindset that she makes Ava’s journey—purportedly to the Underworld to save her sister from marrying a ghost groom—seem shockingly plausible, even as she maintains a hint of dread-soaked doubt about Ava’s guide’s true intentions throughout.
The third-person Kiwi sections aren’t as exciting as the first-person Ava sections, and there are places where it seems as if Russell should just get on with his coming-of-age story already. But the parallels between Kiwi’s manmade Underworld and Ava’s shadowy natural one are striking, and Russell’s vision of Kiwi as the one person capable of holding the family together reaches an unexpected catharsis at Swamplandia!’s end, one that should feel like cheating, but becomes intensely moving.
And every time the Kiwi story starts to sag, Russell is ready to jump back to Ava in the swamp, where she blends a number of seemingly supernatural elements—ghost stories, old folk tales, spiritual portents foretold by animals of unusual colors—into a mixture that feels almost normal and mundane, as if the swamp is the one place left in North America where these remnants of our more superstitious past still hold true. For all her considerable skills at plotting and character, Russell’s greatest skill may be at building a world that’s just a few degrees off of our own, a place where everything is just strange enough that the membrane between life and death seems permeable, and a theme park based around the idea of visiting hell seems downright reasonable.