I came across Swamplandia!, the first novel from young US author Karen Russell, in a letter written by Michael Cunningham on behalf of the 2012 Pulitzer jury, whose shortlist was exasperatingly rejected by the Pulitzer Prize Board. Though he had misgivings about some narrative elements in the novel, he said, “… it seemed very much like the initial appearance of an important writer, and its wonders were wonderful indeed. …. One is not necessarily looking for perfection in a novel, or for the level of control that generally comes with more practice. One is looking, more than anything, for originality, authority, and verve, all of which “Swamplandia!” possessed in abundance.” After reading it I have to say I wholeheartedly agree with Cunningham’s assessment. Russell is an immensely talented writer, something that is evident from the opening pages.
The heroine of Swamplandia! is Ava Bigtree, an isolated thirteen year old , who lives with her quirky family on an island in the Florida everglades where they run a dilapidated alligator theme park called Swamplandia! They claim they are part Indian and dress as such for photos that promote the park, despite not having ‘a drop of Seminole or Miccosukee blood’. After Ava’s mother – who is the star attraction of their daily shows with the alligators – dies of cancer, Swamplandia! begins to fall into the mire of dwindling customers and rising debt. Her father, known as ‘the Chief’, is a mostly absent dad with no idea of how to run the park or look after his children. To make matters worse, a new, rival theme park known as ‘The World’ opens up on the mainland. Drawn to the new attraction, their customers disappear. The mounting debt is crippling, but the Chief doesn’t seem to understand the severity of the problem or how to resolve it – a metaphor for current America if ever there was one. Wanting a taste of mainland freedom and hoping to get a high-school diploma, her brother Kiwi takes off to work at The World, while her sister Ossie starts dating ghosts and eventually elopes with one. Meanwhile, the Chief shoots through for his annual jaunt to the mainland, leaving Ava to look after herself. Missing her big sister she goes off in search of Ossie with the strange ‘Bird Man’ whose job it is to shoo away buzzards from the islands but is perhaps more an attractor of them than anything.
Russell’s writing reminded me of Dave Egger’s debut A Staggering Work of Hearthbreaking Genius. There is a level of confidence and control. There is humour amidst the heartbreak and despair. The setting is lovingly captured, with the summer humidity of the everglades dripping off the page; breathing feels “like drowning in a liquid you couldn’t climb out of.”
Russell’s similes are what legendary Australian Rules commentator Dennis Cometti might call: ‘centimetre perfect’. Suffering from dementia and housed in a care facility on the mainland, Grandpa Sawtooth and his fellow patients are issued with “pastel pajamas that made them look like Easter eggs in wheelchairs.”
Elsewhere, “moths jumbled tunelessly above our heads, kaleidoscoping in this way that looked like visible music”.
A character’s laughter rises “like the bubbles in the aquarium of coffee behind her, rich and aromatic.”
And how’s this for a passage that depicts Ava’s fear of the mainland:
I would vanish on the mainland, dry up in that crush of cars and strangers, of flesh hidden inside metallic colors, the salt white of the sky over the interstate highway, the strange pink-and-white apartment complexes where mainlanders lived like cutlery in drawers.
Elsewhere, the sense of tragedy is indelible. When Ava leaves with Bird Man to search for Ossie, the “Bird Man’s pole kept clanging over rocks, his song like a cog in his throat, and I watched my home pull away from us.” We know that whatever is to happen on the skiff with Bird Man, Ava will never be the same again.
It’s a sparkling, wonderful debut. There are missteps, but based on Cunningham’s assertion of what to look out for in a new author, Russell ticks all the boxes.
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Chatto & Windus
Source: the local municipal library