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Ava Bigtree is a teenage alligator wrestler. Her older sister Ossie is in love with a ghost. They have grown up on a Florida island theme park with their parents, their grandfather and their big brother Kiwi. Now though, all they have known is threatened. Their mother Hilola was the star attraction, but she died a few months before, not in the jaws of an alligator but of ovarian cancer. As well as being the glamorous figure on billboards who everyone came to see, she ran the show and did all the jobs that needed to be done, and the family is lost without her.
This is a story about grief and sadness and of a young girl growing up too soon. At the same time, it is startlingly funny. A lot of the story is told by Ava in the first person, a bright and knowledgeable girl but still very innocent in many ways. She aspires to take on her mother's role, not realising that the family business (and her childhood home) are about to close down.
Another perspective on the family's story is provided by Ava's brother Kiwi, who runs away, foreseeing bankruptcy at Swamplandia!, to take a paid job on a much bigger rival theme park on the mainland, hoping to earn money to send home. I did wonder if anyone would really call a theme park the World of Darkness, but Russell paints a brilliant portrait of a nasty place run by a big company who exploits the workforce mercilessly, charging for accommodation and food on site, uniform and even an ID card processing fee - at the end of three 60-hour weeks Kiwi 'owes' the World of Darkness over $182, the ultimate wage slave.
Meanwhile, back on the island, the story takes a scary and disturbing turn. The girls are left alone in the closed down theme park as their dad also heads off on a business trip. Ossie disappears leaving a note to say that she has eloped with her ghostly lover. Ava goes to try and save her, initially in the company of the Bird Man, who comes to deal with nuisance birds for a fee each year. He is a sinister character, and how could everyone in her family have left 13 year old Ava to fend for herself? I thought Ava's father was particularly hopeless - he only appears very briefly in the novel but nothing we learn about him is impressive. I was cross with the dreamy and delusional Ossie as well.
The other significant characters in Swamplandia! are of course the alligators, who are fierce and predatory but have come to be regarded by the Bigtree family as almost pets, given the collective name Seth, and fed a commercial diet from Louisiana breeders (another reminder of the difference of this world, needing to buy 'gator food). They give Russell an opportunity for some striking descriptive passages, and are a memorable part of the story. On her journey, Ava carries a baby Seth.
This is Karen Russell's first novel, but she previously wrote a collection of short stories, St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, including the story Ava Wrestles the Alligator, which can be seen as the origin of this novel. I was looking forward to Swamplandia! and I wasn't disappointed. I found this novel beautifully written and very witty, yet often extremely sad too. It was longlisted for the Orange Prize this year (2011).
This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk