Review + Giveaway: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

12 May

Karen Russell is by many people’s standards an up-and-coming literary star. Or if not quite a star, someone with A LOT of promise. Her debut novel Swamplandia! follows up her only other book, a 2006 short story collection called St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves that contains a story called, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” which was the genesis for this novel. Russell was named to New York Magazine’s list of 27 impressive New Yorkers under 26 (how’s that for making me feel inadequate?), and last year the New Yorker listed her in their 20 Under 40 list. She also won a 5 Under 30 award from the National Book Foundation in 2009. Aside from being impressive because of her young comparative age in the literary field, she has a certain way with language and storytelling that is completely unique. Not just unique in a “oh everyone’s special” kind of way. I mean, what on earth sparked the crazy plot themes and twists and turns that became Swamplandia! in Russell’s brain?

Published in February of this year by Knopf, I was eager to get my hands on a copy of this book. The advance praise along with the impressive New York Times review that I read was enough to encourage me to step slightly out of my comfort zone (I’m not normally a fan of Gothic-style literature) and buy a copy. The synopsis goes like this (from the publisher’s site):

From the celebrated twenty-nine-year-old author of the everywhere-heralded short-story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (“How I wish these were my own words, instead of the breakneck demon writer Karen Russell’s . . . Run for your life. This girl is on fire”—Los Angeles Times Book Review) comes a blazingly original debut novel that takes us back to the swamps of the Florida Everglades, and introduces us to Ava Bigtree, an unforgettable young heroine.

The Bigtree alligator-wrestling dynasty is in decline, and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, formerly #1 in the region, is swiftly being encroached upon by a fearsome and sophisticated competitor called the World of Darkness. Ava’s mother, the park’s indomitable headliner, has just died; her sister, Ossie, has fallen in love with a spooky character known as the Dredgeman, who may or may not be an actual ghost; and her brilliant big brother, Kiwi, who dreams of becoming a scholar, has just defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their family business from going under. Ava’s father, affectionately known as Chief Bigtree, is AWOL; and that leaves Ava, a resourceful but terrified thirteen, to manage ninety-eight gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief.

Against a backdrop of hauntingly fecund plant life animated by ancient lizards and lawless hungers, Karen Russell has written an utterly singular novel about a family’s struggle to stay afloat in a world that is inexorably sinking. An arrestingly beautiful and inventive work from a vibrant new voice in fiction.

I loved the premise of this book, the family connections set against the backdrop of the Everglades, the promise of an engaging narrator with a singular viewpoint. I still do love those elements of the book, but if you follow me on Twitter (and you were paying attention to my #fridayreads Tweets, you might remember that I listed Swamplandia! for three, maybe four weeks as my #fridayreads. I’m not going to use that oft-used, entirely cliche phasing of, “I wanted to like this, but I didn’t.” Because why would I have picked it up if I didn’t want to like it? There are elements of the book that I did love. I loved the narrator, I loved the setting, I LOVED the writing – some of the turns of phrase Russell used were absolutely fantastic – but I had some real issues with believability.  I am a pretty adventurous reader when it comes to suspension of disbelief. I’ll buy pretty much anything you’re selling in a book, but there were too many points in Swamplandia! that made me stop mid-page, and go, “Wait, WHAT?”

For example, after Ava’s mother dies, and her father takes off, I was really hard pressed to understand a couple of things: why he would leave – there wasn’t an indication prior to this in the book that he was the type to desert his children. I understand that he was grieving and people don’t do rational things when they’re grieving, but I needed more to be able to relate to the situation and to not just hate Chief Bigtree from there on out. I had zero sympathy for him, which colored the rest of the book.

Here’s the big believability issue for me – the “relationship” between Ossie and the ghost. Every time Ossie’s obsession with some ghost boyfriend came up, I literally scoffed. I was angry that her family was letting her get away with this, I was angry at her for basically abandoning Ava’s for a ghost, and I was skeptical of the entire situation in the first place. My rational brain said, she’s have a mental break, she’s got a mental illness, but every other character in the book – while skeptical – let her go on in this manner without interrupting her fantasy and saying, wait, this isn’t okay, this isn’t right. I kept trying to talk myself into believing it, saying, well they are in the Everglades, maybe ghosts are a part of life, and maybe this is normal and part of the culture. But there was even less of an indication that this was the case than there was that Chief Bigtree had the inclination to ditch his children.

I stuck with Swamplandia! significantly longer than I normally would, given that I was slogging through it with such discomfort. But in the end, it was just not giving me the pay-off I was hoping for with the time I invested into it. I read slightly more than half the book in about a month and gave up. I’m sad to put this one on the Did Not Finish shelf, and I’d like to say I’ll come back to it, but I doubt this is the case. I don’t see my issues with it resolving themselves given a different time and/or place.

But there were a lot of people who liked this book. My DNF is one of the only poor reviews I’ve seen of this book, so I’d like to pass along my copy of Swamplandia! to one of you, dear readers.

So! If you’d like my copy of the book (hardcover!), leave a comment with your name and make sure the email you list in your comment profile is correct so I can email you if you win. Maybe you’ll find a different result, and if you do, please share it here. I’ll pick a winner on May 18th (next Wednesday).


16 Responses to “Review + Giveaway: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell”

  1. Christa (Hooked on Books) May 12, 2011 at 3:23 pm #

    If you’re willing to ship to Canada I would love to give this book a shot!
    I’ve heard a lot of great things about it and it sounds intriguing. It’s too bad that it ended up on your DNF shelf but life is too short to read a book you’re not enjoying!

    • Rachel May 12, 2011 at 3:26 pm #

      I don’t mind shipping to Canada! That’s what was tough about this for me is that it’s not a BAD book. I just didn’t enjoy it.

  2. Books are my Boyfriends May 12, 2011 at 4:12 pm #

    I have heard the mixiest of reviews about this book, and her short stories were so A+ excellent. I want to believe, I still want to believe!

  3. ohemgillie May 12, 2011 at 4:13 pm #

    I just got a copy of St. Lucy’s Home for my birthday, but I haven’t read it yet. I’ve been looking forward to Swamplandia! just based on the title.

    It’s a shame you weren’t a fan, but it’s good that you’ll find a new home for your copy.

    • Rachel May 12, 2011 at 5:22 pm #

      I’d love to hear what you think of St. Lucy’s – I’m hopeful that maybe I’d like that instead. I also had high hopes for Swamplandia! based on the title :-/

  4. americanbookjunkie May 12, 2011 at 4:25 pm #

    I’m always afraid to read something [or someone] that’s gotten so much hype–but I’ll give it a chance! Also I love the way of doing a giveaway for a book that you just reviewed. I impressed that you can actually part with a book, though. I have piles and piles and piles all throughout my house [well, currently they’re in boxes and boxes and boxes] and, to my husband’s dismay, can’t seem to part with them!

    • Rachel May 12, 2011 at 5:24 pm #

      Oh dear, my bookshelves are so packed full, I HAVE to get rid of this one. If I thought maybe, MAYBE there was a chance I’d re-read it, I wouldn’t do a giveaway. But I’m hoping someone else will like it. Otherwise, my piles sound just as bad as yours 😉

  5. Greg Zimmerman May 13, 2011 at 4:12 pm #

    I’d love to give this one ago – Russel’s accolades are certainly intriguing. (I guess, similar to Tea Obreht’s, but The Tiger’s Wife bored me silly.)

    Have you ever read Carl Hiassen? I never have, but you hear this comparison a lot – both for the Florida setting and for the humor and wit.

  6. Meg @ A Bookish Affair May 14, 2011 at 9:01 pm #

    I have this book on my TBR list. I’m excited to read it and I’d love to win!


  7. Kari May 18, 2011 at 12:11 pm #

    Ooh, if you haven’t picked anyone yet, throwing my name in the pile!

  8. Kari May 18, 2011 at 12:13 pm #

    PS, I totally feel inadequate now as well. I have one more year to make that 27 NYers under 26 list. However, should I ever decide to write an award-winning debut novel, reading about this book just inspired me with an idea for it. So if I can write it in a year and get it published, maybe I’ll make the list after all.

  9. zeteticat May 18, 2011 at 12:18 pm #

    Thanks for reminding me (on twitter) to enter! This book sounded interesting when I heard about it on NPR but I was hesitant, and your review admittedly makes me more so, but hey!

  10. Book Phantom May 18, 2011 at 12:24 pm #

    I wasn’t in love with this one either. I reviewed it on my blog and had similar issues with belief. It’s really too bad – it had so much potential.

    • Rachel May 18, 2011 at 12:25 pm #

      I’m glad I wasn’t alone in my issues with this. I’m checking our your review now.

      I assume that means you don’t want to be entered for the giveaway then? 😉

  11. Ellen Rhudy June 4, 2011 at 4:08 am #

    I’ve been looking forward to reading St. Lucy’s & Swamplandia, but the reviews I’ve read of this book have been so mixed – I’ve read a lot about Russell’s prose being intriguing but there not being much “under” that. Still, your review gets me more curious to read it so I can see if I react in the same way to some of these elements it sounds like readers are supposed to accept without too much question or debate (like Ava’s father leaving after her mother’s death, or the ghost boyfriend thing). Some of the descriptions of Russell’s stories remind me (in a real broad way) of Kelly Link’s stories, which I love…hoping I’ll feel the same way about Russell’s writing.


  1. Winner: Swamplandia! « a home between pages - May 19, 2011

    […] and sweet because my day job is a little nutsy today. But I chose the winner of my Swamplandia! giveaway, in hopes of finding a good home for my unloved copy. And the winner […]

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