Since reading Russell’s short story collection, I’ve had her novel on my to-read. As always, bingo is a great time to knock a bunch of books off the TBR pile, so I finally made space for Swamplandia!. Sadly, I was underwhelmed. Russell’s writing is beautiful and there’s a ton of descriptive gems throughout the story, but plot wise, this book felt all over the place.
Swamplandia! is an alligator themed adventure park run by the Bigtree family where they wrestle alligators and do stunts above the gator pit. Essentially run by just a family of five, the Bigtrees make their fame off of mom, Hilola, who tourists flock to see swim with the gators. Things are going along for the family until Hilola is diagnosed with uterine cancer, and dies six months later. Since the heart and soul of the park (and the family) are gone, Dad and each of the kids, Kiwi, Ossie, and Ava, drift apart as they deal with their grief. The tourists stop coming since they only cared about Hilola, and the park reaches dangers of foreclosure when a new theme park “The World of Darkness” opens up on the mainland. Dad is basically useless and goes to the mainland to find work, leaving his teenage kids home alone on the island. In short order, Kiwi escapes the the mainland with ideals of grandeur that he’ll be able to get a good job and save the park, leaving his sisters to fend for themselves. Shortly after that, Ossie gets caught up in some occult ghost possessions and leaves Ava alone to marry a ghost out in the Everglades. Ava runs into a guy called The Birdman on her island, and they go off on a creepy adventure through the Everglades in search of Ossie.
And that’s pretty much where I lost interest in this book. A huge part of the plot builds up this idea of the Underworld and ghosts and whether it’s real or Ossie’s just crazy, but it never really commits one way or the other. While there’s a lot of thematic back-and-forth about legends vs. reality, there’s no thru-line to any sort of philosophical conclusion, and in the end, it literally just feels like a bunch of mismanaged kids that take their imaginations too far and it leads to serious consequences. And it was such a letdown because Russell did an amazing job of building this ‘otherworld’ quality into the environment for it to just be swamp in the end.
Also, the Ava rape scene felt totally unnecessary. Russell does give The Birdman creepy vibes throughout their journey, so it’s not really a surprise, but his whole plot felt shoe-horned, and I think Russell could have found any number of other ways to have Ava search for Ossie that didn’t include her teaming up with the random creepy dude she just happens to run into and has never seen before. There were literally three other characters we’d been previously introduced to who could have been her companion. The scene did nothing for the story or Ava’s character arc. Literally everything that happens after the rape could have been achieved without that scene.
The bright spot of this novel was really Kiwi’s story, and I basically kept reading for him. His plot was the only one that made any sense and had a full arc and conclusion. I think if Russell had just made this story about Kiwi, it would have been much stronger.
I’m sad that I couldn’t give this book a higher review because I love Russell’s short fiction so much, but not everyone can be amazing at both short-form and long-form, so I’ll be sticking to Russell’s short stories in the future.
Bingo Square: The Wilds