To view a satellite image of Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands—the chain of mangrove islets and brackish estuaries that protect the state’s southwestern coast—is to experience cartographic panic. Even miles up on Google Maps, the winding streams and jagged fractals of land look carnivorous, like a digestive system built by water and time to consume those fool enough to venture inside.
But that’s where 13-year-old Ava Bigtree gets lost in Karen Russell’s inventive if imperfect debut novel Swamplandia! Ava’s the youngest in the Bigtree clan, who run the gator-themed amusement park that gives the book its name. There’s sister Ossie, prone to possession by spirits; brother Kiwi, bookish, desperate to escape; and their blustery father, who can tie shut the maw of a 400-pound monster in seconds. The collapse of Swamplandia!, after Ava’s mother’s death, sends the children to the winds. Kiwi, determined to save the family’s finances, takes a job at a mainland amusement park, the World of Darkness. Ossie flits deep into the Everglades, to elope with a ghost that’s stolen her heart. Ava follows Ossie, aided by the Bird Man, a wandering eccentric who might be wise to swamp spirits—or might be the kind of dangerous loner who’d agree to accompany a young girl into the wild.
Swamplandia! suffers from a tonal disconnect, toggling between Ava’s tale—a spooky journey into a desolate landscape, like Winter’s Bone in steamy Florida—and Kiwi’s, a picaresque satire of modern excess. His coming of age suffers in comparison with the peril Ava faces in the Bird Man, the gators, and the scorching sun. That’s not to say there isn’t pleasure in watching cloistered Kiwi learn to live on the mainland. The horrors of the World of Darkness—a family-friendly descent into hell, complete with an underground wave pool called the Lake of Fire—are mirrored in the minimum-wage Inferno endured by its employees. Once soft and tentative, Kiwi muses late in the novel, “now he could tell any man in the World to go fuck himself with a baseball bat. Progress was being made, he guessed.”
The book’s acknowledgments proclaim its forebears, including Katherine Dunn, whose 1989 novel Geek Love remains the sine qua non of carny lit. Dunn’s pitiless vision of children as grotesques is miles away from the Bigtrees, innocents all. And there’s never a chance that Swamplandia! might go off the rails, as Dunn’s fearless masterpiece so gleefully did. For soon the magic of Ava’s hunt for her sister falls away and a weird, dissonant story turns into a familiar, if harrowing, tale of abuse and escape. Too bad, because Ava’s search for her sister is haunting, and Swamplandia! is at its best when it explores the corrosive fear and grief that come with loss. Ava describes the “black fruit of love … a terror that sprouted out of your love for someone like rotting oranges on a tree branch.” Those branches wind their way through the book, like the lonely, braided waters of the Everglades, a labyrinth of sadness in which a young girl loses her way.