Swamplandia!Book | Karen Russell By Tracy O’Neill
Gators and ghosts take center stage in Russell’s Floridian family drama.
With her first novel, Swamplandia!, Karen Russell finds poetry in amusement parks and alligator wrestling, Florida sunshine and gift shops. Her attentive ear for rhythm and assonance lends an almost musical quality to the sentences that narrate the lives of the Bigtree family following the death of wife, mother, and champion alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree. In her absence, the brood is parented by the oblivious dreamer Chief Bigtree, who doesn't seem to understand that their gator park business is losing out to the competition—not so subtly called the World of Darkness—or that his kids are losing it: his teenage daughter Osceola, for example, is "dating" ghosts. Problematically, this dire situation doesn't feel dire because Russell doesn't trust her readers and over-explicates to compensate. Even her punctuation, with its frequent use of ellipses to telegraph irony or subtext, expresses this distrust. As such, we are constantly aware of Russell's authorial hand; we feel like we are reading fiction rather than being immersed it, and so our connection to the story is limited. In the end, it's a novel to be appreciated more for its wonders of language than its complex characters or plot.