Friday, May 6, 2011

'Swamplandia!' by Karen Russell

Karen Russell first attracted attention a couple of years ago for her debut short story collection St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised by Wolves. Needless to say, I haven't read it. But there was something beguiling about the cover and plot synopsis of her maiden novel, Swamplandia! , a tale of an odd family who live on an island in the Florida Everglades, where they run their own (eponymous) alligator park, replete with live alligator wrestling shows.

It's a singularly strange book, largely in a positive way. It opens with the death of Hilola Bigtree - alligator wrestler extraordinaire and beloved mother of Osceola, Kiwi and Ava. The book is largely built around the efforts of the three to deal with their mother's death, though only the perspectives of Kiwi (in the third person) and Ava (a more gripping, less amusing first person perspective) are seen. Kiwi's is really a coming of age story, as he travels to the mainland and works a shitty job for a rival theme park in a misguided attempt to raise enough money to keep Swamplandia! afloat without Hilola, its star attraction. Ava is a charming, unreliable narrator who struggles to keep her sanity whilst looking for her older (but still teenaged) sister, Osceola, who has become unhinged enough to run off with a ghost called Louis Thanksgiving, who she intends to marry.

Such a bizarre story, you would imagine, requires strong, vibrant writing to work. And Russell manages that in spades, with memorable descriptions and inventive adjectives in almost every paragraph, without sounding too loose and jazzy. A sampling of any page of the book would throw up vivid sentences, but one particularly striking metaphor is used to explain a character's reaction to a rape, where she feels drawn to her rapist:

 "Once, at Argyle Murphy's fish camp, I watched a little scottie dog get a Gulch bottle broken across its back and then go loping, tongue lolling, towards its owner with the man's beer and its own blood stiffening on its fur - not to attack him, as I'd originally thought, but to lick and lick at the emerald bits lodged in his hand."

Interestingly, in an interview Karen Russell speaks of how her writing process involves a lot of time carefully composing sentences, and how the editing of the book required her to cut a lot of these sentences out. It is arguable that a few more sentences could have been chopped to facilitate a zippier, tidier narrative; though it would take a hard-hearted bastard of an editor to decide which ones. Swamplandia! falls a fair way short of perfection, but the loveliness of its prose means any reader will be glad to have encountered it.