The New Yorker’s 2010 Summer Fiction Issue (‘20 Under 40’) recognized twenty young writers who personified the spirit of contemporary American fiction. The meticulous undertaking of honoring a select few writers amidst any number of distinguished individuals prompted adulation and criticism alike in the literary community.
One of the recognized young writers was Karen Russell, author of St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. She was praised for her ability to craft elegant narratives based on familiar topics and enveloping readers in imaginative surroundings.
Russell, commenting on the nature of quality fiction, stated: “I do think that great fiction, even when it’s comedic, has an urgency or an inevitability to it, a sense that the writer absolutely had to write this particular story in this way.”
The author’s reverence for inventive and original storytelling is evident in her first novel Swamplandia! Russell gives us the musings of the eccentric Bigtree family clan and the sprawling Everglades landscape.
Swamplandia! begins in media res where the precocious protagonist, 13 year old Ava Bigtree, is grieving over her mother’s sudden death due to fatal complications from ovarian cancer. The tragic news of Hilola’s death is compounded by Chief Bigtree’s stubbornness to admit the fiscal ineptitude of the family’s ”Number One Gator-Themed Park and Swamp Café” in the Florida Keys.
A competitor nefariously dubbed “the World of Darkness” serves as a looming menace in the Bigtree’s lives. There is a noticeable and, frankly, relatable incongruousness between the Bigtree’s fantastical aspirations and the stark reality of the world they inhabit. Ava is entrusted with responsibility of honoring the family’s long-standing alligator (called ‘seths’) wrestling traditions. The narrator humorously notes, “Tradition is as important, kids, as promotional materials are expensive.”
Russell’s preference for lyrical language and a focus on a multitude of characters plays a prominent role in this oddly construed work. Readers are treated to the juxtaposition of events and a thorough examination of the anatomy and psyche of alligators.
Reviewers of “Swamplandia!” have criticized the novel’s lack of a cohesive narrative or linear plot progression. While those observations are certainly valid, Russell engrosses readers with broadly defined characters in nightmarish circumstances. The author employs Ava and her introspective brother Kiwi as alternating narrators in delineating a story that is halfway between a suspense novel and a ‘coming of age’ tale. Russell’s distinct descriptive prose and absurdist humor may appeal to a narrow subset of readers, but despite any misgivings, “Swamplandia!” is an offbeat novel grounded in common literary themes in the sunny Florida Keys.
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