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Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Here's something I've discovered about myself within the last year: I love being in book clubs, but I actually don't love choosing the books all that much. Both of my book clubs operate under the same rule: each month, one member picks the book, then hosts the book club at her (no boys allowed! Well, no boys want to be in my book clubs, but anyway) home. I happened to have to pick both of my book club books at the same time, and you know what? It's a lot of pressure! You want to choose something people will like, because you crave approval from your fellow book nerds, but you also want to pick something you yourself want to read, and also something that will be discussable--if everyone loves a book, there's rarely enough to talk about.

It occurs to me now that the smart thing to do would have been to PICK THE SAME BOOK FOR BOTH CLUBS, but why take the easy route? I chose How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu for one of them, and Swamplandia! for the other. I actually had very specific reasons for this; I consider one of my book clubs "edgier" than the other, which is so stupid, but anyway, both of the book clubs had pretty poor attendance. I'm not sure my taste in books is quite in line with book club sensibilities.

So: Swamplandia!. I'd actually heard some pretty awesome stuff about this book, so I was excited to read it, but when it arrived in the mail from Amazon I was a little concerned about the heft of it. It was a thick paperback with thin paper and very small font and even I, reader that I am, can be intimidated by these things. And my suspicions were not unfounded--this book was WAY too long. But before I tell you why, let me first tell you what it's about.

Swamplandia! chronicles the adventures of the Bigtree family, specifically twelve-year-old Ava, but also, to an extent, her brother Kiwi and her sister Osceola as well. The Bigtrees live on Swamplandia!, one of the Ten Thousand Islands off the coast of Eastern Florida, which are largely uninhabited besides a few dozen TOTAL WEIRDOS, some of which Ava comes into contact with throughout the story. Swamplandia! is also the name of their alligator-themed amusement park (for lack of a better term); the Bigtrees own nearly one hundred of the swamp monsters (all of whom are named "Seth" for some inexplicable and somewhat unsettling reason), and the main attraction at Swamplandia! is an alligator wrestling show featuring Ava's mother, the infamous Hilola Bigtree.

But by the start of Ava's tale, Hilola has already passed away from cancer, and the family is reeling without her. Swamplandia! is falling apart, crushed under a mountain of massive debt, Ava is lonely, Osceola is clearly losing her damn mind, and Kiwi is desperate to go to the mainland to maybe make some money and perhaps get himself an education. When the kids' father, Chief, heads to the mainland under mysterious circumstances, claiming that he's going to save Swamplandia!, the remaining Bigtrees scatter to the four winds. Kiwi also goes to the mainland, to work at World of Darkness, Swamplandia!'s much more successful competitor; Osceola heads off to get married to her ghost boyfriend (more on this later), disappearing into the wilds of the Everglades; and Ava goes looking for her sister with the help of this Birdman dude who is mad sketchy, because she is a CHILD who has been ABANDONED by EVERYONE IN HER FAMILY.

So let's get back to Osceola and her ghost fetish. Long story short, Ossie finds a book that convinces her she can conjure spirits, and she has numerous romantic dalliances with all sorts of long-dead personages, none of which are very serious until she and Ava find a dredge boat, its crew long dead, and Ossie begins "dating" Louis Thanksgiving, a young man who died on the dredge back in the early twentieth century. What was strange about this aspect of the book is that by all appearances, the reader is supposed to believe that Ossie is actually communicating with spirits. Ossie performs several feats she could not do without specialized knowledge (which Louis has and she doesn't), and all signs point to she was probably definitely seeing ghosts. HOWEVER--this is the book's only real magical realist element, if you don't count some stuff Ava purportedly sees while she's running around the Ten Thousand Islands, starving and half-crazed with thirst and probably hallucinating like whoa. The entire element struck me as strangely out of place in an otherwise relatively normal narrative, which wouldn't be such a problem, except that basically the entire second half of the book (which was SO LONG and full of beautiful, unnecessary descriptions of the swamp that I just wanted to beat my head against a wall) was predicated on the notion that Ossie had taken off to get married to her dead boyfriend and Ava had to search for her. By the time I got halfway through that section, I neither wanted Ava to find Ossie, nor did I particularly care if either of them survived, which is not really the reaction I think the author was going for.

The sections that described Kiwi's experiences on the mainland, however, were much more interesting, despite the fact that they were hella sad and pathetic. He was by far the most compelling character for me; Ava and Ossie were TSTL, and the Chief was the WORST. FATHER. EVER. But Kiwi had a lot of depth, and I don't even think it's necessarily because his experiences were more relatable than anyone else's (although they were, as they did not involve ghost husbands or trusting creepy drifters for no apparent reason, AVA), but because he was the one person who was trying to do the absolutely right thing, even though he kept running into obstacle after obstacle.

And, I mean, clearly Russell has an enormous talent. The novel was beautifully written, if not entirely compelling. I think its main weakness (and this is entirely subjective of course) was that it depicted a world that I had no interest in, and in which I did not want to spend any time. Everyone was SO poor and unhappy, everything was SO gross and frightening, that I had no interest in allowing the world of Swamplandia! into my headspace for any longer than necessary.

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