Sunday, August 26, 2012

Swamplandia! Book Review

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell has received glowing reviews by Stephen King and others, so one would expect this novel to be exceptional, but the author's clever writing fails to compensate for a bad plot.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

The dysfunctional Bigtree family lives in isolation in the swamp land of Florida, doing alligator shows for tourists who must arrive by ferry. The three children are homeschooled and have no real friends, and the oldest child, seventeen-year-old Kiwi, particularly can't relate to people. The mother dies before chapter one, and is the catalyst for the deterioration of her brood. Her husband, The Chief, is unable to deal with his loss, leaving their three children to fall through the cracks.

Rent Books at BooksfreeThe chapters disjoint the book when they vacillate between Kiwi's and Ava's point of view, but ultimately the ending is happy, and Russell does have a unique way of describing things, like calling their lake "black silk, the water bunched and wrinkled." Her humor can also catch one off-guard to laugh out loud, like when she calls the Bigtree Family Museum "The Louvre" of the Swamp Islands! though it is only filled with common garage sale items the family has outgrown and discarded, set behind glass and labeled "ARTIFACTS."

However, the negatives of Swamplandia! outweigh the good parts of the book. Personal hygiene and nutrition fall by the wayside, and the only one who seems to face the world honestly is Kiwi. Everyone else is in denial. No one does the laundry after Hilola Bigtree dies, and the two daughters resort to spraying their mother's rancid perfume on their itchy clothing to become presentable. The Chief abandons his kids to work on the mainland, but doesn't tell them the truth about what he is doing. Ossie, the middle child, descends into mental illness and necromancy, absurdly chasing a ghost she wants to marry. Alone, Ava enlists the help of a strange man to find her sister and then is raped by him. She blames herself for his actions, though she is just a child, and then doesn't reveal her victimization when she is finally reunited with her family. The novel glosses over her situation and never resolves this tragedy.

The story involves horror and family, but is not sufficiently scary like a Henry Lovecraft tale or even sweetly syrupy like Little House on the Prairie. It is plain depressing, like forcing people to watch ignorant neighbors neglect their children and home. Read Swamplandia! by a crackling fire with a soothing cup of tea or hot chocolate to counter the sadness one will inevitably feel for these pitiful characters.

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