Toss a rock into the lake that is American literary fiction and among the ripples that emerge are excellent debut novels by young women far wiser than their years. The most exuberant, big-hearted and entertaining of the bunch is most certainly Swamplandia!, which builds on and then zooms past the promise Karen Russell demonstrated in her 2006 short story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, published when she was 25.
The ensuing years have seasoned and polished this blazing talent, who took the bare bones of her novel from a short story featuring 13-year-old Ava Bigtree, left alone by her itinerant father to watch over her older sister, Osceala, and most importantly, care for the 98 alligators that are the final remnants of a once-thriving theme park on an island off the Florida Everglades. Swamplandia! expands the family canvas further, showing us not just Ava’s struggle through a sinister, River Styx-like underworld to save Osceala from a phantom lover, but also older brother Kiwi’s futile attempts to save the decrepit theme park by toiling, slave-labour-like, at its sleeker, modern, bullying competitor.
Metaphors abound in Swamplandia!: the Bigtrees’ stubborn attempts to hold fast to their legacy, the transcendent power of love, both romantic and familial, and the careless way capitalistic forces encroach on both nature and independent voices are all explored here, brilliantly. But Russell never forgets she has a wondrous story to tell, and imbues her prose style with the assurance and vibrancy of a veteran fiction writer. In the midst of making readers think, Russell also makes us laugh, cry and gasp as she concocts an amazing and undiscovered world and populates it with characters we come to care for deeply. You’ll want to savour the sentences in this literary triumph.