Karen Russell’s debut novel, Swamplandia! (Alfred A. Knopf, $25), is both magical and menacing. It’s the story of the Bigtree family, a group of eccentrics who run an alligator-themed amusement park in Florida. The park’s main attraction is the family matriarch—Hilola Bigtree—who wrestles alligators while her husband, Chief Bigtree, works both the spotlight and the microphone. In addition to the theme park, the Bigtrees have three teenage children: Kiwi, their only boy, is weary of home schooling and curious about life on the mainland; Osceola (“Ossie”) is obsessed with the spirit world; and 13-year-old Ava is an alligator wrestler in training, dreaming of the day she will replace her mother in the spotlight.
Fans of Russell’s previous book, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (Knopf, 2006), will no doubt recognize Ava from one of the short stories (“Ava Wrestles the Alligator”).
Very early in the novel, Hilola dies. Not in the unforgiving jaws of an alligator, but in the grip of ovarian cancer. As a result, attendance at Swamplandia plummets and the family splinters. Chief Bigtree disappears one day, prompting Kiwi to leave home and seek employment at Worlds of Darkness, a rival theme park. Osceola sinks deeper into her spiritualism, and ends up eloping with a ghost named Louis Thanksgiving. Left to fend for herself, Ava resolves to rescue her older sister, with the help of a mysterious older stranger known simply as “Bird Man” who believes that Ossie has been taken to the Underworld.
At this point, Russell splits the narrative neatly in two, alternating chapters of Kiwi’s story with Ossie and Ava’s. Kiwi’s education is both formal (night classes at the local community college) and informal (constant ribbing from his World of Darkness colleagues), but consistently hilarious. Meanwhile, Ava’s search for Ossie grows darker and more desperate as she and Bird Man navigate the swamp together.
I suppose it’s fitting that a novel about rival amusement parks might take the reader on an emotional roller coaster, but I had no idea about the sheer depth of Russell’s literary skills. Her writing is simply a joy to read. I’ve read novels where the author seemed so intent on dazzling the reader with showy sentences that it overshadowed the plot, but that’s not the case here.
I liked Swamplandia! a lot, so when I say I closed the book every 30 pages or so, it wasn’t because I wasn’t enjoying myself; it was because I wanted to savor what I’d just read. I can’t remember the last time I did that.