Holy Crow here we are with another author heralded as one of the Best 20 Under 40, Karen Russell. Haven't there been something like 50 of these under 40's recently? Do we need to discuss what a useless list that is? Oh the inhumanity knowing that if the arbitrary numbers were Best 21 Under 40 or Best 20 Under 41 that you would have made the cut.
The new novel, Swamplandia! is Russell's second book. Her first was the well received and miraculously well selling short story collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Obviously I never read St Lucy's. I couldn't. It's written in short story and I'm not bilingual. Swamplandia though is another story because it's not stories. It's a real book.
Swamplandia! is the tale of thirteen year old Ava Bigtree and her strange and weird world. Ava Bigtree is one of The Bigtrees. The Bigtrees of alligator wrestling theme park fame. For years this island park in Florida was the most popular destinations in the region. Sadly now the golden age of alligator wrestling seems to have passed and decay is settling in. The parks' headliner (Mom) has died and their customers are being lured away by the more up to date, like store bought new theme park on the mainland, The World of Darkness. Ava's brother has deserted for the real world. He's turned to the Darkness in hopes of using them to help save the family business, her lovestruck sister has run off and Dad, Chief Bigtree, is missing. All that leaves a lot of gaters to babysit, a business to save, loneliness and grieving to get through and the mysterious Bird Man who is going to help Ava find her sister.
Take a deep breath. Chapter One has ended.
Quirky families have been a fiction staple since the Bible. In the hands of gifted and inventive authors like Russell, unique and often humorous character traits are fresh and beguiling. They establish the boundaries of an accepted if uncommon world in which the writer can play out their storylines and juxtapose the quirk against the expected. With a less talented author quirky quickly becomes tiresome but Russell keeps it all set at a couple of degrees above the everyday, just slightly magical and slightly garish.
Russell is quick to lay down the basic histories of the Bigtree family, gators, Swamplandia! and the island swamp where the park is located in tall tale style. There are lots of descriptions here, sidebar stories and enough plot for books twice the size of Swamplandia! but none of this is ever out of her control or too fantastical. Russell keeps this carnival believable. One of the ways that Russell builds a time worn history for the Bigtrees is with the use of a homemade slang. It's great. The language Russell brings to Swamplandia! is vibrant, juicy and begs to be said out loud.
I hate myself for doing this but I cannot help it...if you took Angela Carter, Katherine Dunn, Flavia de Luce and John Irving and mixed them all up you might get something close to Swamplandia! but it still wouldn't be as wonderful, vivid and endearing.