Sarah Ryburn's Reviews > Swamplandia!

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
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Feb 19, 14

Read from March 28 to April 08, 2011

**** 3/4

Getting into this story was a bit of a task. Somewhere around page 89, however, I realized that I didn't want to put it down. Russell is an excellent writer, despite the occasional split infinitive (personal pet peeve), and her story sparked some truly rich and engaging discussion one particularly fine April evening. This is a novel that lends itself to discussion and not of the "I liked it when..." variety. Russell's approach is subtle; she is a master of "showing rather than telling," pairing terse, sometimes shockingly direct, dialogue (i.e. Ava telling the Birdman she loves him) with imaginative, meandering characterization. In the world of Swamplandia!, plot always serves characterization so much so that I read with the persistent sensation of moving deeper into this island world, its strange mythology, and the collective psyche of its inhabitants in the turning of each page. The swamp came to life for me, springing out of the page; it's the dwelling place of monsters, "the Seths," and of demigods, the bigtree clan who live among and subdue them (Chief Bigtree actually refers to the Seths as "prehistoric monsters").

There is such complexity here––enough, surely, to fuel many more hours of discussion and countless paragraphs for this review. All the time that Rrssell weaves her mythology, she plants quiet but insistent markers of the "human" realm-–Chief Bigtree's warning that alligators in the wild are not like the Seths, a radio playing golden oldies deep within the boudaries of "the underworld," subtle markers rather than foreshadowing of the reckoning Ava faces once it is no longer possible to "go on pretending" as the Birdman suggests. This simultaneous tending to both her mythological world and the crushing realism that undermines and destroys it shows the hand of a masterful storyteller. I was completely drawn in and found myself as bewildered and confused as Russell's characters to find that, in the end, the piper must be paid.

I will call the novel masterful; there is no doubt in my mind. Russell misses five stars in my assessment due to an abrupt and murky ending. There is a hint of all coming out too well for these characters in the end, but I don't really fault Russell for this. Narrative tension is a tricky thing, but Russell balances it smoothly throughout a long and complex story, if it does get away from her a bit just at the end. I think she couldn't write a good story and escape the damage they must suffer at the death of such naive illusions. At the same time, I don't think she could stay true to her characters and destroy them completely. Swamplandia! appears larger than life to the Bigtree children; life seems to require that their innocence be cut away, leaving them raw and bloodied with the wisdom of their experiences. There is strength in Ava and Ossie and Kiwi; Kiwi shows himself to be a survivor, to be capable of adaptation, and Ava becomes an alligator wrestler in truth. Ossie may seem frail and other-worldly, but Ava comments that she has always been full of surprises, unlooked-for talents and abilities. So I am glad that Russell did not surrender entirely to the altar of realism, and I agree that this family seems "somehow to be winning" in the midst of considerable losses. Still, I find the ending "abrupt and murky." There are questions I want answered, but I don't necessarily want to know what happens next. In a way, an ending to the narrative seems needful once the characters accept that Swamplandia! is lost, yet Ava's optimism seems remote and insubstantial. I wanted more assurance; I wanted some hint at how they really might win and not merely survive.

I've written before and simply will repeat that endings, really good ones, seem more difficult than beginnings or all that comes in the middle. I often forgive an author truly horrifying slips in the middle if her beginning hooks me well or his ending really satisfies. Russell's beginning seems a bit sluggish, and her ending does not fully satisfy, but there is genuine craft in the 200+ pages that come between.
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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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Erin I'm interested to read your review! The cover grabbed my attention as I was leaving the bookstore the other day.


Sarah Ryburn really interesting. sparked a truly rich discussion in book club!


message 3: by PJ (new) - rated it 4 stars

PJ Thanks for this review. It made me keep on pushing through the first part of Swamplandia! that I found a bit slow. I'm 25% in now and I'm hooked. So thank you! This was my selection for my monthly Bookclub.


Sarah Ryburn glad i could help you out!


Lizz to capitalize or to not capitalize, that is not the question. i am failing to see the connection to split infinitives as well. this is goodreads, friend, not lit class with professor tightwad. anyway, enjoyed your review! can't wait to start and see for myself what all the fuss is about.


Sarah Ryburn thanks, lizz, and happy reading! :)


Vickey Kall I loved your review, but I also loved the book's ending. It seemed perfectly appropriate to me.


Sarah Ryburn glad you enjoyed the book– she's a great writer.


Lillian Just finished Swamplandia . I came upon your spot on review!


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