Returning to the swamp

If you were reading way back in April (hard to believe it’s been so long), you may remember me bemoaning the too-bizarre tale of Ava Bigtree and her off-kilter family in Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!  I’m pleased to report that my stubbornness won out last week when I picked up and finally finished the second half of the book in a zippy five days.

Ironically it took getting frustrated midway through another book (Deb Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches, no comment) for me to return to the odd landscape of the Everglades for a necessary break from reality. Now finished, I must change my verdict: Read it!Swamplandia_cover

As I said earlier, Russell has an enviable ability to describe the ordinary in otherworldly yet relatable way. Her metaphors and similes are applied with a heavy hand — no restrained seasoning here — but that sort of diction is what defines good literature and excellent folklore.

Admittedly, the second half picks up the pace as the journey described in the book teaser at last begins. The magical realism continues but strategically placed holes hint that much of the magic at work is thanks to the childlike wonder of our endearingly scrappy narrator.

Following a similar journey-to-Hell story arc as Heart of Darkness — probably the most painful reading assignment of my student life — Russell’s fully fleshed-out characters keep the story from descending into esoteric territory. And although it was a challenge early on to stick with the story, I’m glad I came back to it. My advice to prospective readers: Treat this novel like a trip through an actual swamp; ooo and awe over the colorful creatures and clever turns of phrase you find within the pages, but don’t linger too long. Like quicksand and prehensile plants, Swampladia! can bog you down if you stop marching forward.

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