SWAMPLANDIA! by Karen Russell is a debut novel and came to me highly recommended. I found it on the Indie Bestseller List, which is where I find most of the books I read. If you’re a fan of books that blend reality and unreality, gothic realism, myths and a few ghosts added for measure, this might be a book for you.
SWAMPLANDIA! is the name of a Florida alligator theme park, whose tourist show is headlined by the book’s mother and alligator wrestler, Hiola Bigtree. The park and Hiola’s family unravel fairly quickly when she dies of cancer. The remainder of the book is about how her dysfunctional family cope with her loss, the failure of the park without its star, and learning truths about family.
The book’s central character is thirteen year old Ava, who aspires to take her mother’s place in the park’s show. Ava’s two siblings, seventeen year old brother Kiwi and sixteen year old sister Osceola, along with her father, Chief Bigtree round out the cast of quirky characters. Many of the situations in the book are comedic, but the overall theme of the book is dark. When Osceola descends into madness and runs away to marry a ghost, Ava sets out on a journey to the underworld to find her. She is led there by a weird character, The Birdman, who becomes more and more sinister as they proceed.
Perhaps it’s my sense of grounded reality, from the perspective of a middle age woman, but this book did not sit well with me. I couldn’t stop thinking, “What does it all mean? Is this symbolism of something else? What’s real and what’s not real?” Maybe I am too literal for this type book.