22 August 2012

Book Review: Swamplandia!

Hmmmm, where to begin with this book? Last month, the ladies of book club and I checked out the best fiction books of 2011 on the New York Times Best Sellers List. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell was one of the choices. It sounded interesting, so we picked it.

And it was interesting. From the title and the first 100 pages of the book, it's easy to assume the book is a campy novel with unique characters. However, the farther your journey in the swamp, the darker the story becomes.

Russell writes about a family that owns a alligator amusement-type park in the swamps of southern Florida. Their last name is Bigtree and they claim to be Native Americans, but their grandfather is actually a white man from Ohio. Hilola Bigtree, the matriarch and star of the gator show, has died before the book begins. It's pretty clear that no one is dealing with her death in a healthy way - least of all the father, Chief.

The story is centered on the three children, Kiwi, Ossie and Ava. The park is failing and likely going to go into foreclosure. Kiwi and Ava devise their own plans to save the park and Ossie claims she dates the dead. Confused yet? Yeah, it's a bit convoluted, even in the book. The kids are all teenagers, but behave much more like children. As the story progresses it's easier to understand their immaturity - they've lived their whole lives on Swamplandia!, down to homeschooling (more like no schooling) and performing in the park's shows.

The final 100 pages are quite jarring and unexpected. Somewhere around the middle of the book, the story is no longer a dark comedy - it is a tragedy. Russell writes about grief, violence and mental illness in a haunting way. They all get caught up in the legends and customs of the swamp.

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