‘Faith was a power that arose from inside you, I thought, and doubt was exogenous, a speck in your eye. A black mote from the sad world of adults.’
Ava Bigtree, alligator-wrestler-in-training, will need plenty of faith, or something, to survive the sudden changes at Swamplandia!, her lifelong home. Swamplandia! is under threat from a new and unexpected competitor, a theme park called the World of Darkness. When Ava’s mother, a champion alligator-wrestler and the star attraction of Swamplandia! dies suddenly of cancer, her husband and three children are left to face both the dwindling number of paying visitors, and the inconceivable force of their grief.
Somehow, thirteen-year-old Ava begins to disappear from view as far as her remaining family members are concerned. Her older brother Kiwi, determinedly intellectual in a naïve kind of way, sets off for the mainland (Florida) to save their home. Ava’s sister, the middle child Osceola, develops a fascination for the spirit world and falls is in love with one ghost after another. Their father, the Chief, also heads for the mainland, ostensibly for some obscure business purpose, leaving the two girls alone.
Swamplandia! is an extension of a short story published in Karen Russell’s earlier, and highly recommended, St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. The stories in that collection focus largely on children and young people, with whom Russell evidently has a particular affinity. Reading Russell’s writing is a bit like looking into a mirror, and finding a reflection that is recognisable, but somehow larger and more colourful than the reality. She has a unique ability for surprising metaphor and description.
Ava Bigtree is a likeable heroine, a strong-minded, intelligent person who loves her family fiercely. It is easy to feel protective of her, as she struggles with all the unprecedented upheaval at Swamplandia!, and works to keep the members of her family safe and together in the same place. Unfortunately, neither Ava nor the reader can control what happens in this novel; Russell is skilled at exposing all the chinks in our emotional armour, and testing them painfully. This novel departs from likelihood at many junctures, but remains unflinchingly honest.