Anastasia Zamkinos's Reviews > Swamplandia!

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
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's review
Jul 15, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: american, dystopias
Read from July 15 to 23, 2012

** spoiler alert **

My expectations were, admittedly, high. Despite some lukewarm and even somewhat chilly reviews, there were still several rave reviews for Karen Russell's Swamplandia!. The premise was irresistibly novel: a family's alligator wrestling themed park falls apart when a mother dies of cancer, one daughter falls in love with a ghost dredgeman, and a son defects to the rival park World of Darkness. And all of it was reputedly rendered in "a lusciously written phantasmagorical treat" (Palm Beach Post)! I was excited to read this one but, perhaps in part because of my excitement, I was disappointed.

There are a few gems. The use of language was, at first, captivating in its quirky juxtapositions, such as in this passage describing the father who goes by Chief: "Without his radiant ropes and beads and feathers, you could see his pale scalp through a scrim of scant black hair. Color had ripened in twin spots on his stubbled cheeks, which made him look a little like a haggard Shirley Temple."(14) Then there are also those occasional poetic literary moments such as when Kiwi Bigtree is ridiculed in night school for his whiteness and reflects that he "didn't like getting snowballed into a color. But maybe everybody felt that way about their adjectives..."(208) See? I really wanted to like this book!

So what kept me from liking it? Honestly, there is just too much going on and it's handled too haphazardly. It's part coming-of-age story, part redefinition of family and home, part discourse on love, part exploration of the line between reality and fantasy, part story of loss/grief/post-trauma/recovery... All of these and several more major themes, are opened and few are explored in ways that ultimately feel satisfying.

Another major factor in my reaction to Swamplandia! is the handling of Ava's rape scene. This scene is only necessary insofar as she has to be somehow betrayed, her innocence broken, but there are other ways to accomplish that same effect. Many readers review this scene harshly and I think rightfully so given how poorly it is handled. Despite the realism employed elsewhere in the story around lesser matters such as bills and cleaning, the reality of post-trauma after rape (let alone rape of a young child by a surrogate father figure) is not sufficiently addressed, and this major disappointment is so close to the novel's conclusion that it spoils much of the reading experience for me.

The novel's coming-of-age stories for the siblings and their eventual reuniting as a redefined family included plenty of quirky moments of playful language use and imagery, but this book was ultimately a let down for me.

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