The Short Version: Ava Bigtree and her family live on and operate a theme park in Florida called Swamplandia! Their star attraction is their mother, who swims with and wrestles alligators. After their mother dies, the three Bigtree children retreat in their own various ways while their father disappears – Ossie starts dating a ghost, Kiwi starts working at a rival theme park, and Ava (the youngest) is trying to make sense of it all. When Ossie disappears to go marry her ghostly boyfriend, Ava sets off to find her and ends up in greater danger than she’s ever known.
The Review: I read a review, way back when this book came out, that said something along the lines of “when it goes bad – and you know from the start it will”. This was in reference to Ava’s journey with the Bird Man and it haunted me through the entire second half of the book. Even had I not heard that quote, I would’ve been feeling that way: a general sense of dread, of the knowledge that this could not be how things really were and that as a result something catastrophic was about to happen. Then, when the inevitable bad thing does happen, I just felt so uncomfortable – so hurt, so betrayed that I started to get angry. And I wondered then why that was.
Because this is a good book. It’s a very good book. An incredibly good book, especially for a debut novelist. I mean, sure, she’s one of The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 – it wasn’t like she was going to be bad. (Although Jonathan Safran Foer is looking increasingly overrated these days…) But something about this book kept me at arm’s length for the longest time… and I think it was that fear that this woman, who has been so hyped up, would not be able to live up to said hype. When Sarah read the book and told me she found it too weird, I started to get concerned. Karen’s lovely but ultimately bland performance at The New Yorker Festival (on a panel with Colson Whitehead & Gary Shytengart – two people who would make The Most Interesting Man In The World seem dull by comparison, I must admit) did nothing to push me into reading the book. It wasn’t until I was faced with the Tournament of Books that I decided I would tackle this novel.
And immediately, I was won over. Okay, maybe not immediately: the whole idea of the theme park and everything took a little adjusting. I’ve visited Florida many times and have found it strange and surreal every single time – but I haven’t been back in many years. This novel was set in the Florida Keys of my childhood memory: a place out of time and space. A place not unlike the Keys of Stephen King’s universe (see: Duma Key) but then again not quite…. and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the three siblings – associating (not surprisingly) with nerdy and bookish Kiwi, believing my younger self would’ve fallen for Ossie, and seeing my little sister in Ava. Everything about the Bigtrees reminded me of an odd carny version of my own family – what could’ve been, in a way. My father wrestling alligators would have surprised approximately no one, let me tell you. These Southern feelings were only exacerbated by listening to Dr. John’s excellent (and thoroughly voodoo-spooky) new album during the reading of the book: it felt like the sort of thing one reads by candlelight in a thunderstorm listening to such groovy voodoo music. So it was fitting, this weekend (although there wasn’t any thunder).
But, as always happens with thunderstorms, the sun comes out and the ground dries and you feel weird – the world feels like a wet dog, unhappy and uncomfortable. This book ends in much the same way. Without spoiling things too much – although it’s pretty obvious how things are going to go down from very early on, despite Ms. Russell’s excellent way with magical realism – there’s a moment about 75 pages from the end of the book that smashes the carefully created not-quite-reality of the book to that point. And this bugged me, a lot. The moment is the moment I mentioned at the start of my review but it’s not the moment itself (although that is uncomfortable to the highest degree) that bothered me: it was the way that Ava realizes everything is not what it seems. Russell sold me on a certain version of the world: a magical realism one, where ghosts were real and a strange figure named The Bird Man could navigate you into the underworld by following the paths of buzzards through the strange and uncharted islands in the Everglades. I was so sold on this world that when the rug was pulled out from under it, I was genuinely upset. I wanted that world to exist. Even in Kiwi’s separate adventure at the World, things seemed more-than-real: they were a heightened weird version of reality and it fit with a universe where ghosts were real, etc etc. But in cracking the reality of Ava’s narration, the entire book fractures. The world that has been created is pulled out from under you and it doesn’t feel like a magic trick but rather a scam. Suddenly, you start to question things like why the narration had to split in the first place. Ava’s story, one of imaginary adventures, doesn’t really fit with that of Kiwi, a classic coming-of-age story. Told in separate points of view in alternating chapters, the effect is actually somewhat alienating. You begin to lose sympathy and lose interest – but I will say that Russell does a damn good job of making sure you never get totally lost because she’s such a terrific and beautiful writer. Even if I felt that the plot was wobbly, the writing around it does a good enough job holding things together that I couldn’t be upset. I was just disappointed that this world I’d come to understand and accept – a kooky world where ghosts exist and people wrestle alligators in a theme park – was no longer so real.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. I have to admit: I really enjoyed this book. The big flaw, the huge one that I’ve just been discussing, isn’t enough to stop me from liking the book. But I think I could’ve loved it and that’s somewhat saddening to me. There’s too much here and not enough focus to it. Russell clearly has a vivid imagination and absolutely deserves her many awards and shall-we-call-them investments – but she’s also still got a lot to learn and this book just reinforces that. If she allows one story concept to take hold – just the coming-of-age, just the precocious young girl, just the magical realism – she will be a writer par excellence. For now, she’s just very promising, even as flawed as her work might be.