Swamplandia! is an alligator-themed amusement park in the Everglades run by Chief Bigtree, his wife, Hilola, and their three children. For years tourists have been flocking to the park to see the star attraction: Hilola Bigtree and her alligator-wrestling act. The fortunes of the Bigtree family start to change, however, when Hilola dies of cancer – and then a rival theme park called World of Darkness opens on the mainland nearby and the downfall of Swamplandia! is complete.
Swamplandia! first came to my attention when it appeared on the Orange Prize longlist. Not having read anything by Karen Russell before I didn’t know what to expect from this book but was intrigued by the unusual setting and subject. And at first I loved the originality and quirkiness of the story. I loved reading about the Swamplandia! theme park (complete with Swamp Café and Bigtree Family Museum), the alligator-wrestling and the other details of the Bigtree family’s life on the island. After a while the novelty started to wear off, but luckily the characters were strong enough to keep me interested.
The three Bigtree children all have an innocence that makes them likeable and endearing characters. It’s understandable in a way, as they haven’t had the most conventional of childhoods. They’ve been homeschooled on the island and the only other children they’ve really come into contact with have been tourists visiting the park. After their mother’s death, each of the three tries in their own way to cope with what has happened, unable to rely on their father who is reluctant to accept that his beloved park is in trouble and who fails to be there for his family when they need his support.
Osceola, the elder sister, announces that she’s in love with a dead man – and begins ‘dating’ him via séances and possessions. Ossie’s ghostly romance seemed ridiculous at first, but was actually quite a poignant and moving story. Her brother, seventeen-year-old Kiwi, runs away from Swamplandia! quite early in the story and goes to work on the mainland in an attempt to earn money to solve his family’s financial problems. But it’s Ava, as the youngest girl, who is particularly vulnerable. It’s Ava’s narration (including some disturbing scenes involving a ‘journey to the underworld’ with a stranger who calls himself the Bird Man) that gives the book an underlying darkness, with some moments of real sadness and heartbreak.
I loved the chapters narrated by Ava and I was also interested in Ossie’s storyline, but whenever the action switched to Kiwi’s adventures on the mainland, I quickly got bored. I can see why the Kiwi sections were included, as a way of lightening the mood of the book and to show how his childhood growing up in the swamps left him completely unequipped for life on the mainland, but to me they just didn’t fit with the rest of the book and I would rather have stayed with Ava’s narration. This was potentially a great book but the uneven plot let it down.