SWAMPLANDIA! by Karen Russell (is my Girlfriend)


When this novel first came out in 2011 I heard ALL the mixed reviews about this book. People putting it down halfway through, people loudly complaining about the ending, all the things that make me NOT WANT TO READ A BOOK.

And then it seemed last year like there was a second wave of criticism. Bookrageous, a literary podcast that I trust times a gazillion did a show on the novel where they acknowledged this book had its flaws but the book, and I quote,  made them feel ALL THE FEELINGS. Also, the Tournament of Books ranked Swamplandia! over Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table and the argument was good. All the things that made me  KIND OF WANT TO READ THIS NOVEL.

After reading Swamplandia! (reading, whatever, more like gobbling it up with my mouth open in a most unladylike manner) I get why people got angry with this book and its flaws (or what has been labelled/perceived to be flaws). I also get why it was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. And I haven’t read the other nominees, but if there had been a 2012 Pulitzer winner, I would have been COMPLETELY FINE with that.

Let’s synopsize and let’s talk. Swamplandia! is set in the Ten Thousand Islands on the southwest coast of Florida and follows the Bigtrees, a family of alligator wrestlers who run an amusement park on their island, the eponymous Swamplandia! When matriarch of the family Hilola Bigtree, the alligator wrestling park’s star attraction, passes away from cancer, the family is thrown into disrepair. Patriarch Chief Bigtree doesn’t know how to parent singlehandedly, brother Kiwi runs away to work at a hell-themed amusement park on the mainland, sister Osceola begins conjuring the dead and dating ghosts, and youngest Ava is left to attempt to pick up the pieces of her rapidly disintegrating family. When Osceola runs away with one of her ghosts on an old dredge, it’s up to Ava to venture into the swamp to try to rescue her sister and save her family.

It’s an oddly disjointed novel. Halfway through we split from Ava’s first person to third person Kiwi and we’re back and forth between the two for the rest of the novel. I get really tetchy about switching from first to third perspective, for me it’s the literary equivalent of seeing a painting hanging crookedly on the wall and not being able to straighten it. Also, there are expectations of a certain kind of world for most of the novel, and it isn’t until late in the game that we realize that the world we think we have been living in with the Bigtrees  is not the true world of the novel. Our realization lines up with Ava’s realization, self-knowledge that is a produce of an unexpected and traumatic event that occurs late in the story. Getting the rug pulled out from under you as a reader takes some forgiving especially when you don’t know there’s a rug there to be pulled. We think this is going to be a tale of high adventure and we realize when Ava does that it is really a story about what it’s like to grow up when everyone that was supposed to take care of you has abandoned you. It’s the rug-pulling that made me angry, it’s the rug-pulling that I think is Pulitzer worthy.

The prose is out of this world. Seriously, it’s like Karen Russell is an extraterrestrial from a distant galaxy where everyone is really good at metaphors and similes. I actually wanted to put french fries on this book and eat it up in three big bites, that’s how much this book made my stomach growl with hunger for this SUPER AWESOME PROSE.

It’s not a perfect read but it gets ten go

WHAT KIND OF GIRLFRIEND IS SHE: A wild swamp child who speaks in just the prettiest of metaphors.


We (alligator) wrestle…

I’m victorious for a second…

And then not…

5 Comments on “SWAMPLANDIA! by Karen Russell (is my Girlfriend)”

  1. I am just plain wild about this book! Fabulous read. I love your pics, beware of allibooks!

  2. bybeebooks says:

    I have this book. I hear it’s little footsteps, trying to scramble to the front of the queue, knocking Russian authors and Salman Rushdie out of the way.

  3. nomadreader says:

    As much as I loved the first third of this novel and still sort of love it as a whole, I think I’m more in the camp of “but it *should* have been so much better!” I adore Russell and eagerly await another novel from her.

  4. Jacquelyn Pascucci says:

    I am with you on the rug-pulling. It REALLY bothered me, but reading your thoughts about it is making me reconsider my feelings (which were and still are mixed…but are now mixed and reconsidered).

  5. […] had read a few reviews on Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (Books Speak Volumes, Books are my Boyfriends) and finally received the digital copy from the library.  I wasn’t sure exactly what to […]

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