Swamplandia is two novels. That is, it tells two stories, but not in the usual way. The two stories are not seperate; they are overlaid. One of the stories is the groundsheet, the bedrock, the grassroots of the book; the other is a fantastical overlay that populates the world of the novel with ghosts, and bird-whisperers, and impossible themeparks. It's only right, I think, that I should give you two synopses.
Synopsis the First:
Ava is 13 years old and her mum has just died of cancer. Her dad's business is failing; her older brother, Kiwi, has just run away from home to work for a rival company and her sister Osceola has eloped with an unsuitable boyfriend. Ava's world has fallen apart, both figuratively and literally. She is deep in grief, and frightened for the future. When a beguiling older man comes into her life, she makes the decision to follow him out into the Florida wilderness in the hope of rediscovering her happiness.
Synopsis the Second:
Ava is a daughter of the Bigtree tribe, the youngest member of an alligator wrestling dynasty that runs the Swamplandia! themepark. Since the death of her mother - Hilola Bigtree, Swamp Centaur and the park's star attraction - things have been going from bad to worse. Grandpa Sawtooth has succumbed to dementia and (after biting a tourist) has been sentenced to a stay at 'Out at Sea', a floating retirement home for swamp-dwellers. Osceola, aged 16, has thrown herself into spiritism and eloped on a doomed romance with the ghost of Louis Thanksgiving, a dredger who perished near Swamplandia during the Great Depression. A rival themepark, the apocolyptic World of Darkness, has sprung up on the mainland and tourists have lost their appetite for alligator wrestling; seventeen year old Kiwi has followed suit in the hopes of earning of a living wage and a high school diploma. Ava's father, The Chief, has been forced to leave Swamplandia! to save it from foreclosure. When a Bird-Man arrives in the swamp and promises Ava that he can take her to the Underworld, to find her sister and perhaps her mother too, she follows him without a second thought. You will not be surprised to learn that this turns out to have been a Bad Idea.
While all the bells and whistles and weirdnesses of Swamplandia! bombard you - children who wrestle alligators! ghostly lovers! passages to the Underworld! - the other, simpler story busies away in the background. The cacophony is delicious and distracting, only occasionally changing register to reveal the bare bones of the other story, the one about an American family loosing their identity in the face of death, economic downturn and adolescence. It's an act of hybridization that brings together the Great American themes of Jonathan Franzen and cross-breeds them with Kelly Link at her most zany and playful. (Link, incidentally, gets a nod in the lengthy acknowledgements.) It sticks out like a sorethumb on this Orange longlist, but in a good way.
Anyone who has read Karen Russell's (stunning) debut short story collection, St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, will recognise Swamplandia! and some of its characters from 'Ava Wrestles the Alligator' and, to a lesser extent, 'Out to Sea'. The novel has its roots in these proto-stories, which see Ava go through some of the same motions, attempting to save her sister from posession and herself from loneliness. They evoke the same creepy sadness as Swamplandia! the novel, the same marshy foreboding. They weren't my favourite stories in the book, maybe because I could feel their constraint to the form, and the premise makes a better novel because it has room to breath and grow. That said, I don't think the novel is a better book than St Lucy's taken as a whole. There are some baggy places in the plot, and some over-egging of the flippancy pudding, and the occasional weirdness that edges over into the downright daft.
The writing though, oh the writing. Weird and compelling as it is, Swamplandia!'s premise is not the real and best reason to read it in my view. From beginning to end it is fizzingly alive with language, with unexpected similes, with the offbeat rhythm of compound words. You know you're in for a treat on page 4, with the description of Hilola Bigtree's trademark swimming with alligators routine:
The lake was planked with great gray and black bodies. Hilola Bigtree had to hit the water with perfect precision, making incremental adjustments midair to avoid the gators. The Chief's follow spot cast a light like a rime of ice into the murk, and Mom swam inside this circle across the entire length of the lake. People screamed and pointed whenever an alligator swam into the spotlight with her, a plump and switching tail cutting suddenly into its margarine wavelengths, the spade of a monster's face jawing up at her side. Our mother swam blissfully on, brushing at the spotlight's perimeter as if she were testing the gate of a floating corral. Like black silk, the water bunched and wrinkled.
The prose is chaotic sometimes, and not every word hits true, but Russell's way of seeing the world isn't just strange, it's often revelatory. A day is 'peppery' with rain (evoking the smell, texture and the spatter pattern of wet on dry); ghosts 'silk' rather than walk or float; a ramshackle house looks 'like a fat man taking little yellow breaths'. There is enormous pleasure in the flavour, texture and bite of the moment-to-moment reading of the book, and this pleasure is greater (I think) than the pleasure of the whole in hindsight. I am left with the memory of fragments, ever so many perfect phrases, that finally coalesce into plot resolution that feels unearned and overly neat in context. This is partly because Russell has created a world for the Bigtrees that seems too big for the story she has to tell about them; it is partly because a story to match the spirit of the prose is unimaginable. How could any narrative arc rise to the atmospheric pressure the writing creates?
I can't see Swamplandia! on the Orange shortlist somehow, although I think it would be a wonderful strike for style if it was and I wouldn't complain. Now the Orange bandwagon rolls on to something very different: Anne Peile's Repeat it today with tears.