Magical prose operates like glamour, hiding thin plot and poor narrative construction beneath language so beautiful and breathless that it allows faults to go nearly unnoticed. At times, Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia!” is an ode to prose, filled with clever turns of phrase, sharp insight, and language so rich and detailed that images of an isolated Florida swamp seem to jump from the pages of the book directly into the mind. It is a deep and thorough exploration of the illusions that individuals, families, and societies construct to fight off the often-ugly truth of reality. However, its murky plot and tiresome back-and-forth narration overwhelm Russell’s stylish prose and the charm of her characters, and the novel sinks into a swampy, convoluted mess.
The novel traces the story of “the Bigtree tribe of Ten Thousand Islands,” a family who runs Swamplandia!, “the Number One Gator-Themed Park and Swamp Café” in their area. Chief Bigtree is the family’s patriarch, and his wife, Hilola, and three children—Kiwi, Osceola, and Ava—wrestle alligators, sell artifacts of their often made-up past in the gift shop, and keep each other company on the secluded island where their park is located. When Hilola dies, Chief Bigtree abandons his family, Kiwi leaves to work for a competing park on the mainland, Osceola disappears, and 13-year-old Ava is left to fend for herself and save Swamplandia! from disaster.
Ava is a tragically optimistic and insightful protagonist, pushed too soon to the edge of the chasm separating childhood and adulthood. She is old enough to understand that ghosts are not real, as she is told by her father and older brother Kiwi, but young enough to believe in them for the sake of her mentally unstable sister. Ava clings to her youthful dreams of a perfect world even as reality encroaches upon it; as she puts it, “I was discovering all sorts of beliefs and skepticisms turning like opposite gears inside me, and little drawers of hopes and fears I had forgotten to clean out.”
Her childish beliefs, which include the idea that she is the heroine of Swamplandia! and can save her family from ruin, are no less fantastic than those of the older characters in the novel. Her father is convinced that he can save Swamplandia! by going to talk to donors on the mainland and refuses to acknowledge that his lifestyle and family have fallen to pieces. Similarly Kiwi, the self-proclaimed ‘genius’ of the family with a penchant for the classics and an expansive vocabulary, goes to the mainland with dreams of attending Harvard University and paying off his family’s debt. Though supposedly more rational than Ava, he stubbornly holds to the belief that he can save Swamplandia!, even though he barely makes minimum wage working at the competing World of Darkness theme park. Osceola, too, builds a reality for herself in her mind and finds a lover in a ghost that she believes lives in the forest.
The Bigtree clan lives an illusory life, though this self-deception is due to love. Ava ultimately breaks the spell and lets in reality, although she loses a part of herself along the way in an intensely disturbing plot development near the end of the novel. Though this dark moment is a key part of Ava’s understanding of the ugliness that often underlies life’s perfection, it is abrupt and heartbreaking, and completely blackens the novel’s playfully sinister mood. Russell does not give this trauma an adequate resolution, and because of this failure on Russell’s part, the novel’s clean conclusion feels false.
Ava’s dark coming of age, though jarring, is one of the only standout moments in the murky, messy body of the novel. About one-third of the way into “Swamplandia!,” Russell switches from telling the story solely through Ava’s eyes to alternating between Ava’s point of view on the island and Kiwi’s point of view on the mainland. Although Kiwi is a complex and interesting character, the events of his mainland life seem superfluous and secondary to the story of Ava’s crisis on the island. His adventures on the mainland read like a separate collection of short stories rather than cohesive parts of a novel; it seems that Russell’s success as a short story writer obstructs her ability to write a full-length novel with a single overarching plot.
Kiwi’s less vivacious narration, combined with a general lack of plot movement, slow the middle of the book to a snail’s pace, and only curiosity about Ava’s well-being serves as motivation to continue reading. The plot becomes more and more difficult to follow as the alternating narration continues, and the abrupt finale when the siblings’ previously divergent realities collide is bizarre and jumbled. Russell tries too hard to end the novel neatly; she resolves the family’s division in an implausible way and fails to address or explore the darkest moments introduced in the story of Swamplandia!’s demise. Yet although her plot is often convoluted and disjointed, the beauty of Russell’s prose and the depth of Ava’s insights lend necessary momentum to “Swamplandia!”
“I sort of thought this future must exist somewhere, the year of our triumph floating in utero in outer space, as small as the pinheads of stars,” says Ava, musing on the disintegration of dreams. ”Swamplandia!” suggests that the future is immediately reachable and visible, but only if we shatter the illusions that obscure it.
“Swamplandia!” is a meditation on family and its interconnections, and on the lies, small and large, that individuals tell to make reality more bearable. Russell’s surreal world is as shatteringly real as it is a complete fabrication, and can be touching to anyone who knows what it is to have broken dreams.
—Staff writer Araba A. Appiagyei-Dankah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.