Swamplandia! by Karen RussellSwamplandia! by Karen RussellSwamplandia! by Karen Russell

It’s not often a book manages to maintain the balancing act between reality and fantasy, but Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (2011) treads the line perfectly. The story opens with Hilola Bigtree, matriarch of the Bigtree family who own Swamplandia!, an alligator-wrestling theme park in the Ten Thousand Islands of the coast of Florida. She performs her nightly stunt of jumping into a lake full of alligators, but it is not this which kills her; she falls victim to the more mundane and arguably tragic battle with cancer. This leaves the Bigtree family — Hilola’s three children and husband — to come to terms with their loss and the uncertain fate of Swamplandia!.

Narrating the family’s story is our thirteen-year-old protagonist, Ava Bigtree, youngest of the Bigtree clan. At thirteen, Ava should have enough problems to contend with as it is, but with her world falling apart around her, she has a lot to contend with. A new amusement park, the underworld-themed World of Darkness, has opened nearby, and visitors to Swamplandia! gradually trickle to a halt.

Things start unravelling across the family, too. Her older sister, Osceola, has become obsessed with ghosts after finding an old book, The Spiritist’s Telegraph. She and Ava begin by holding a heartbreaking séance to try and contact their dead mother, but things take a more serious turn when Osceola starts disappearing at night to meet her ghost boyfriends. Ava can’t decide whether her sister is possessed by spirits or making it all up. When her brother Kiwi leaves the island to work for a rival amusement park, The Heart of Darkness, Ava’s father, The Chief, shuts down Swamplandia! and leaves the island to go on an unspecified business trip with no return in sight.

This is where the lines between fantasy and reality begin to blur. The story is fantastical enough as it is, but as Ava watches her family’s misfortunes unfold, we see how difficult distinguishing reality through a child’s eyes can actually be. When Osceola disappears on a decaying dredge ship with her ghost boyfriend, Ava enlists the help of Birdman, a buzzard-removing traveller that promises to take Ava to the Underworld where she believes Osceola has been taken to. The story that ensues is both terrifying and heart-breaking when we realise the truth that Ava cannot see from her child’s perspective.

Swamplandia! by Karen RussellSwamplandia! is breathtakingly well-written. The alligators are introduced with their “icicle overbites” on a night “dark and star-lepered.” The first few pages will have readers marvelling not only at the ingenuity of the story, but also how beautifully constructed each sentence is. And, of course, Russell’s prose hasn’t gone unnoticed. The amount of accolades to her name is quite staggering: she was on the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list, the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35, and New York Magazine’s 27 Under 26. The Times rated it as one of the best books of 2011, it was longlisted for the Orange Prize Fiction and, if that wasn’t enough, it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The richness of the prose and the story are staggering, and yet ultimately the reader will simply just be rooting for a thirteen-year-old girl who is trying to piece her family back together.

What is so impressive about the story is the myriad levels on which it works. Though we are watching events unfold through the eyes of a child, Ava’s perception of the world is often wry and darkly funny without her intending it to be so. Russell is being very, very clever: it’s not only her prose that is masterfully crafted. Ava’s viewpoint is exactly what enables that line between fantasy and reality to be blurred, and it will leave readers devastated when the story takes a much darker turn and Ava cannot quite comprehend what is happening to her.

You’re not going to have to be a lover of fantasy to enjoy this book, or even one of literary fiction. Swamplandia! is storytelling at its best and should be read to immerse yourself in the weird and wonderful world Russell has created. One not to be missed.

Published in 2011. Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree has lived her entire life at Swamplandia!, her family’s island home and gator-wrestling theme park in the Florida Everglades. But when illness fells Ava’s mother, the park’s indomitable headliner, the family is plunged into chaos; her father withdraws, her sister falls in love with a spooky character known as the Dredgeman, and her brilliant big brother, Kiwi, defects to a rival park called The World of Darkness. As Ava sets out on a mission through the magical swamps to save them all, we are drawn into a lush and bravely imagined debut that takes us to the shimmering edge of reality.


  • Ray McKenzie

    RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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