From the celebrated 29-year-old author of the everywhere-heralded short-story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (“How I wish these were my own words, instead of the breakneck demon writer Karen Russell’s.... Run for your life. This girl is on fire," said the Los Angeles Times Book Review) comes a blazingly original debut novel that takes us back to the swamps of the Florida Everglades, and introduces us to Ava Bigtree, an unforgettable young heroine.
The Bigtree alligator-wrestling dynasty is in decline, and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, formerly number-one in the region, is swiftly being encroached upon by a fearsome and sophisticated competitor called the World of Darkness. Ava’s mother, the park’s indomitable headliner, has just died; her sister, Ossie, has fallen in love with a spooky character known as the Dredgeman, who may or may not be an actual ghost; and her brilliant big brother, Kiwi, who dreams of becoming a scholar, has just defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their family business from going under. Ava’s father, affectionately known as Chief Bigtree, is AWOL; and that leaves Ava, a resourceful but terrified thirteen, to manage 98 gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief.
Against a backdrop of hauntingly fecund plant life animated by ancient lizards and lawless hungers, Karen Russell has written an utterly singular novel about a family’s struggle to stay afloat in a world that is inexorably sinking. An arrestingly beautiful and inventive work from a vibrant new voice in fiction.
The Bigtree clan is a family in crisis. The mother, Hiola, has passed away and she was not only the main gator wrestler and star attraction at the Swamplandia theme park, but the glue that held the family together. Now on the verge of losing their beloved home, the Bigtrees find they are ill-prepared to deal with the real world into which they've been thrust. Each member of the family leaves their sheltered enclave convinced they can somehow turn things around. Yet do they leave Swamplandia more to save it or to escape it?
The narration duties here are divided in some very interesting ways. Actress/writer Arielle Sitrick plays the main character of young Ava in the chapters focusing mainly on Swamplandia. David Ackroyd takes on the role of Kiwi, the older teenage son, with his chapters being told mainly from a rival theme park, a place that's a bizarro alternative universe version of his previous home. The two narrators see things quite differently. Sitrick voices Ava as the winsome innocent and the mystic heart of a Swamplandia where anything is possible; however, did the nostalgic world she remembers ever really exist? Ackroyd plays Kiwi as the somewhat naive yet most practical member of the family. He has big plans and learns quickly, but finds things are not quite so easy out in the real world.
Karen Russell's Swamplandia is an amusing and well crafted piece that's a bit Florida gothic and a bit magical realism. Will Ava's rare red gator save the day? Maybe Kiwi with his big plans and Forrest Gump-like luck will come through after all? Will younger sister Osceola ever marry her long-dead ghost boyfriend? Then again, perhaps the various family pipe dreams are destined to fail, as perhaps is Swamplandia? In the end the characters and the listener have to question just what a happy ending for this quirky family would even look like. That's the journey that Russell takes you on with Swamplandia, and it's a colorful, original trip well worth taking. Cleo Creech
“[Russell] has thrown the whole circus of her heart onto the page, safety nets be damned. . . . Russell has deep and true talent.” (San Francisco Chronicle)
“Vividly worded, exuberant in characterization, the novel is a wild ride. . . . This family, wrestling with their desires and demons . . . will lodge in the memories of anyone lucky enough to read Swamplandia!” (The New York Times Book Review)
“The bewitching Swamplandia! is a tremendous achievement.”(Entertainment Weekly)
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