Review: Swamplandia! | Alligators and Ghosts and Bird Men, Oh My

Swamplandia!
Karen Russell (2011)

I wanted to like this book more than I did, but Swamplandia! is never-the-less worth recommending for its unusual storyline and vivid sense of place. Set on a small island in Florida, the Bigtree family struggles to keep their fading alligator wrestling theme park afloat. When the matriarch succumbs to cancer, Swamplandia! loses its star attraction and the family tears apart. Dad takes off, eldest daughter Osceola retreats into a ghost world of island spirits, and big brother Kiwi leaves the island to start a new life working for a rival corporate swamp theme park. When Osceola disappears, it’s up to 13-year-old Ava to find her sister and ultimately bring the family back together. The second half of the book concerns Ava’s strange and progressively dark journey deep into the swamp with the mysterious Bird Man.

Shades of magical realism, an otherworldly location, and striking prose make Swamplandia! worth reading, even if the story itself didn’t hold me rapt all the way through.

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