Ms. Russell is one in a million. The proof is in Swamplandia!, a novel about alligator wrestlers, a balding brown bear named Judy Garland, a Bird Man specializing in buzzard removal, a pair of dueling Florida theme parks, rampaging melaleuca trees, a Ouija board and the dead but still flirtatious Louis Thanksgiving. Sound appealing? No, it does not. Unless Ms. Russell had you at ‘alligator wrestlers’ — not likely — you may well recoil at every noxiously fanciful item on that list...But wait. Ms. Russell knows how to use bizarre ingredients to absolutely irresistible effect … Fizzy as these ingredients may be, Swamplandia! also manages to be a suspenseful, deeply haunted book … For all its gorgeously eerie omens Swamplandia! stays rooted in the Bigtree family’s emotional reality.
With a mixture of comedy, terror and nostalgia, [Russell] conjures up a run-down theme park 30 miles off the Gulf Coast of Florida, a tourist trap run by a family of phony Indians named the Bigtrees … On this almost make-believe island, the Bigtree children home-school themselves with moldy books from a Library Boat abandoned in the 1950s. They speak with preternaturally mature knowledge without realizing how little they know of the real world. One wrong move and the novel's poignancy could slip into cuteness … She's charted out a strange estuary where heartbreak and comedy mingle to produce a fictional environment that seems semi-magical but emotionally true.
Vividly worded, exuberant in characterization, the novel is a wild ride: Russell has style in spades … If Russell’s style is a North American take on magical realism, then her commitment to life’s nitty-gritties anchors the magic; we are more inclined to suspend disbelief at the moments that verge on the paranormal because she has turned Swamplandia! into a credible world. Her first-person narration is not a transcription of a 13-year-old voice, but an evocation, in adult language, of a barely adolescent mind-set. This allows for a dazzling level of linguistic invention … If the gothic whimsy of this novel is sometimes too self-conscious, the pleasures it offers are unforced.
Stripped down, Swamplandia!, Karen Russell's debut novel, is one more young writer's saga of a dysfunctional family. But Russell is a rare talent … After this contemporary Southern Gothic opening, Russell takes us through a breathtaking series of spins. She is as agile at describing the creatures and characters of swampland Florida as she is at offering accounts of Ava's youthful yearnings and Kiwi's humiliating low-level job at a competing theme park. A huge chunk of the novel revolves around Ava's attempts to track down Ossie in the underworld, a days-long journey through haunted swamp, with a half-crazy outlier known as the Bird Man … Powered by Russell's vivid wordplay and imaginative energy, Swamplandia! is a continuously alluring phantasmagoria.
Swamplandia! suffers from a tonal disconnect, toggling between Ava’s tale—a spooky journey into a desolate landscape, like Winter’s Bone in steamy Florida—and Kiwi’s, a picaresque satire of modern excess … There’s never a chance that Swamplandia! might go off the rails...for soon the magic of Ava’s hunt for her sister falls away and a weird, dissonant story turns into a familiar, if harrowing, tale of abuse and escape. Too bad, because Ava’s search for her sister is haunting, and Swamplandia! is at its best when it explores the corrosive fear and grief that come with loss.
Karen Russell’s exotic Bigtree clan comes out at the top of the weirdo heap. They operate a shabby gator-wrestling establishment on an island mired in Florida’s swampy backwaters — carnies of a sort, united against rubes and ‘mainlander’ types … Russell is no miniaturist or minimalist, but rather the opposite, heir to a Southern tradition of tall tales, thick descriptions, deep backstories and contrary cusses as anti-heroes. Her theme of the onerous weight of a family’s destiny would not be out of place in any Faulkner production. Neither is she shy about heaping on the plot. By the end of Chapter One, we’ve already been introduced to all the family dynamics and much of its history, and seen the threat on the horizon, which is a rival amusement park on the mainland called the ‘World of Darkness’ … Russell privileges a kind of idioglossia, the special language and set of associations known only to the Bigtree clan, fabulators all.
In Swamplandia! Karen Russell puts the Bigtree family behind the eight ball and keeps it there for what sometimes seems like a mercilessly long time … One of Ms. Russell’s many talents is that she characterizes these two teenagers so deftly, so sympathetically that their oddities never make them seem bizarre or ever steal the spotlight from their pain and effort...Another of Ms. Russell’s talents is her ability to describe the landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes and, most significantly, swampscapes and wildlife of southern Florida … Swamplandia! is an astonishingly assured first novel with many rewards for its readers. Most important is its portrait of people struggling with the uncooperative world.
Swamplandia! the novel is magical realism, American style; lush language, larger-than-life surrealism, a vertiginous line on every page between hopes, dreams and reality, a disorienting mirage of a book. What holds it all together is the voice. Russell's writing is clear, rhythmic and dependable, even as her imagination runs wild … Russell knows about girlhood — how precious, how fragile, how tough a girl can be. She knows about human sacrifice too — how the world eats up teenage girls, all their colorful hopes, their bravado soon boiled down to a taciturn obeisance … Swamplandia! becomes Neverland, a place Ava, Ossie and Kiwi can never really return to. Ava is damaged, the way girls almost always are.
Russell has deep and true talents: Ava is a fabulous narrator, loyal, brave and loving, and by this point, the book seems to be developing into an offbeat version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. As a state, Florida is so very odd that mere close observation can show it in its full weird glory, but the power of Russell's prose makes the swamp unforgettably visceral … For as lovingly written as the book is, however, it is also erratically structured, shaped more like a banjo than the jagged Freytag's pyramid used to demonstrate arc in beginning fiction classes … If given a choice between an inconsistent but passionate book like Swamplandia! and a more perfect and self-serious effort, I'd choose passion, the tightrope walk, the fearsome alligator wrestle.
A debut novel from Russell about female alligator wrestlers, ghost boyfriends and a theme park called World of Darkness … The narrative becomes a quest of sorts as Ava, accompanied by a bizarre character called the Bird Man, poles through the swamps in a mythic attempt to locate her sister. Throughout this search, Russell evokes archetypal journeys through underworlds and across the Styx. Quirky, outlandish fiction: To say it’s offbeat is to seriously underestimate its weirdness.
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 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 … 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.