I have heard so much good about this book — it’s won a ton of awards — so I was initially surprised by its 3.2 stars on Goodreads. Then I read it. Now I’m less surprised. Don’t get me wrong — Karen Russell can write. It’s a beautifully written story. But it still fell really short of what I wanted and expected.
“THE ALLIGATOR IS AN ANACHRONISM THAT CAN EAT YOU!”
Ava Bigtree has lived her whole (short) life in Swamplandia!, a small theme park in Florida where she and her family wrestle alligators and put on shows for tourists. She’s always wanted to be just like her mom, who does the main show. But when her mother dies of cancer at 36 years old, and her father can’t keep things going without her, Ava’s beloved Swamplandia! begins to fall apart. Her brother Kiwi takes off to work for a rival theme park (World of Darkness), hoping to make enough money to save Swamplandia, while her father disappears on a “business trip”. The final piece of Ava’s rather troubled life is her sister, who has become obsessed with a ghost and ran off to marry him. Ava befriends the island’s Bird Man, and together they set off through the swamps to find her sister in the Underworld.
I get what Russell was going for — the metaphors of the Underworld, the Bird Man as Ava’s spirit guide — and the descriptions of the Florida swamps are incredible. But — it’s dull. Kiwi’s adventures in World of Darkness seem like they’re supposed to be darkly funny, but they don’t quite gel with the rest of the story. And poor little Ava and her naivety get really old after a while. And THEN, something really horrible happens, which felt out of sudden and out of character for the book, and I almost didn’t even bother finishing it. Swamplandia! failed me — mostly because it could have been so much better.