Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! is another book that I learned about from the Tournament of Books. I may have to go back to the Tournament recaps now that I’ve actually read the book, and see how much I agree or disagree with their comments.

Swamplandia! is also one of the books nominated as finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year, when no prize was ultimately awarded. I will admit, I have no desire to read David Foster Wallace’s book and I don’t know much about Train Dreams, the other finalist. In my mind, Swamplandia!, being the book that I’d heard of, is the de facto winner. This makes me even more curious about the Pulitzer decision – whether they couldn’t come to a consensus or whether they thought none of the finalists were worthy.

I really wanted to love this book. I wanted to be captivated by the language (I was) and transported to another world adjacent to this one (I was, mostly). I wanted to be so in tune with the characters that I was startled to find myself when I looked out of the book (….a bit). I got all those things….mostly. And it’s that mostly that makes this book less than perfect.

Oh, the language is amazing. It’s colourful and evocative without being overdescriptive. It put me in the Florida swamps and gave me its history, especially with the Army Corps of Engineers, so very clearly. I could see Swamplandia! and its dinginess and its desperation (I’ve been to the Black Hills….)

And for most of the novel, I was transported to another world adjacent to this one. But then, about three-quarters of the way through the book, what had started off as an almost Orpheus-like journey becomes just another childhood trauma story. Which disappointed me, somewhat. I was anticipating an Underworld, a struggle to recover Osceola, an amorphous but real presence, a parallel with the World of Darkness. Instead I got a well-written but tawdry attack that shifted Ava’s goal from rescue to escape.

And the ending itself was a bit too coincidence-driven for me. Kiwi JUST HAPPENS to be taking his flying test over that particular swamp, where Osceola JUST HAPPENS to spot him, and it all JUST HAPPENS to be in the same area around the same time that Ava JUST HAPPENS to get rescued.  Actually, Ava’s rescue is the most realistic of any of that – it was as close to a Chekov’s Gun as you’re going to find in something like this. (Mama Weeds, on the other hand, totally thrown in at the last minute. Not as cool as I think she was intended to be.)

There were a lot of emotional moments that I wish had been explored more. I thought Kiwi’s reactions to seeing his father again were well-done, but there was no follow-up – things just swept straight into the ending. Ava shifts so rapidly from being concerned for her sister to being concerned for herself that neither is ever really resolved. And Osceola herself is never resolved – how does her experience in the swamp change her, if it does at all?

I really loved this book – right up until the end, when I only liked it. The language is fantastic, and is probably why it got a Pulitzer nod. But the shift at the end is too great – it falls apart right when you want everything to come together.

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