The cover of Karen Russell’s debut novel, Swamplandia!, identifies Russell as the author of St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, a collection of short stories published in 2006. That annotation is likely to be unnecessary, given the very many accolades accumulated by Russell since her stories began appearing in print; her inclusion as one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” is just one of the compliments bestowed on the 29-year-old author—though one admires the publisher’s discretion in reserving mention of this honor for the inside flap. Still, the mention of St. Lucy’s is instructive, given the distinct sensibility of the stories included there, tales marked by whimsy and a flare for imaginative melodrama, equal parts coming of age and magical realism. Drawn on the miniature canvas of the short story, each piquant, unorthodox detail elevated observations of the everyday, imparting on the works an unconventional sort of beauty.
It’s not only the style of St. Lucy’s that is relevant to Swamplandia! The new novel takes up and expands on “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” one of the stories included in the collection. (The story initially appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, serving as a kind of early introduction to/prototype calling card for Russell.) The basic outlines of the story remain: Ava Bigtree, the daughter of an alligator-wrestling dynasty, mourns the death of her mother and the absence of her father, while grappling with the apparently ghostly possession of her older sister Ossie as she makes plans to elope with her boyfriend, who may, in fact, be dead. But, as suggested by the title change, the novel broadens the focus of the story, taking in not only Ava’s experience and perception, but the larger landscape of the Florida swamp that is her home and enlarging the cast of characters. Ava and Ossie, in the most prominent addition, are given a no-nonsense older brother, Kiwi, whose own understanding of the proceedings nicely complements Ava’s. (One of the book’s better conceits is that the 13-year-old Ava is more perceptive, more capable, more aware than her older siblings precisely because of her innocent commitment to family.)
Here, as in her earlier work, Russell shows herself to be a very fine writer, the crafter of nearly intoxicating prose. Her best descriptions positively sparkle, as when she opens the book with Ava’s recollection of her mother’s act:
Somewhere directly below Hilola Bigtree, dozens of alligators pushed their icicle overbites and the awesome diamonds of their heads through over three hundred thousand gallons of filtered water. The deep end—the black cone where Mom dove—was twenty-seven feet; at its shallowest point, the water tapered to four inches of muck that lapped at coppery sand. A small spoilt island rose out of the center of the Pit, a quarter acre of dredged limestone; during the day, thirty gators a time crawled into a living mountain on the rocks to sun themselves.
As Ava details the past and present of Swamplandia!, the alligator theme park run by her family on one of the remote Ten Thousand Islands off the coast of southwest Florida, reachable only by ferry, she homes in on the tiniest of particulars, rendering her odd world accessible, even familiar.
Her family, the Bigtrees, she confides, have not a single drop of Native American blood; their family mythology is entirely a matter of imagination. But for Ava, born into this world of tourists and alligators, this mythology is the essence of truth, a history she holds on to with a steely determination.
She will repeatedly need to draw on this resolve in the course of the novel. When her mother’s death (from ovarian cancer) is followed by the catastrophic opening of a competing theme park, called World of Darkness, on the mainland, Swamplandia! flounders, suddenly devoid of tourists, crushed by debts, the extent of which the Chief refuses to reveal. Kiwi reacts to the family’s tragedy with what seems to be a reactivated Oedipus complex, proclaiming that he hates his father and taking off for the mainland (and World of Darkness) in the middle of the night. (His misadventures, related in the third-person, as a World of Darkness employee—a workplace made hellish by its nonsensical bureaucracy and unrelenting commitment to stripping workers of their dignity—form a significant part of Swamplandia!) Ossie, for her part, dedicates herself to study of The Spiritist’s Telegraph, staging séances and “dating” the spirits of long-dead men. Ossie eventually falls in love with the ghost of Louis Thanksgiving, a Depression-era dredgeman, and, with the Chief gone on a business trip, she disappears, leaving behind only a note stating her intention to marry Louis in the underworld, apparently located in the swamp.
Left utterly alone, the plucky Ava finds herself in the company of the Bird Man, a strange pied piper who cajoles birds out of trees, leading them away from property where they are unwanted. The Bird Man offers to take Ava to the underworld so that she might be able to recover her sister, and the two set off on a journey through the swamp. That journey, narrated by Ava and governed by her artless strength of will, quickly becomes the true focus of the book.
The expanse of the novel—as opposed to the more limited site of the short story—allows Russell to perfect her strengths as a storyteller, to exercise the very considerable prowess of her imagination. But it also exposes some potential weaknesses, most evident in the jarring shifts that threaten to overwhelm the reading experience. On the most obvious level, the movement from Ava’s first-person perspective to the third-person view of Kiwi’s experiences makes little sense. There’s also the matter of Ossie’s inexplicable absence as storyteller; though this omission might be justified by her connection with ghosts (she is a kind of ghostly presence in the book), the lack of her perspective becomes increasingly conspicuous as we toggle back and forth between Ava and Kiwi, both of whom think about, and ultimately are forced to speak for, their sister. But perhaps most troubling is the occasional incompatibility of the novel’s various emotional registers, its swings in tone.
Swamplandia! is, from the start, shadowed by tragedy and Ava’s experience, perhaps even more so than her siblings’, is defined by loss, but, for much of the novel’s early part, there is a kind of joyfulness, a sense of real possibility that flounders and disappears. (Russell uses, for her epigraph, a few lines of dialogue, from Through the Looking-Glass, quoting a conversation between Alice, who claims to seen “nobody on the road,” and the King, who rejoinders, in a “fretful tone,” “I only wish that I had such eyes…[t]o be able to see Nobody! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light,” and it is striking, disconcerting even, to think of the ways in which she reinterprets the Alice books in her own story of childhood confusion.) Ava must, almost by the definition of the genre she now inhabits, lose her innocence, must come to terms with the loss of Swamplandia!, a Paradise of sorts, but real ramifications of that loss are left largely, sadly unexamined. It is perhaps ironic that, finishing the novel, one is left wanting more; the short story, meanwhile, seemed all along complete.
Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! was released on February 1 by Knopf. To purchase it, click here.