I love Karen Russell. I would like to meet Karen Russell. I would like to be her friend. I would like to tell her how much I love her writing , how when I read her collection of short stories St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves I was so excited – thrilled that there was a writer out there who was brave enough to write stories like this. How I enjoyed them like I’d enjoy the tastiest of foods. How reading her stories was like the first time I ate olives. Like nothing I’d ever eaten before, and better than anything I’d ever tasted. The book sits on my shelf and sometimes I look at its spine and smile. I am so pleased that Karen Russell exists.
But I’d not read anything else by her. So when I started her novel, Swamplandia! I was a bit worried. What if I didn’t like it? Some writers are better at short stories. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2012 though, and longlisted for the Orange Prize, so it came with credentials. I waded into the swamp.
I am so glad I did. Swamplandia! is a gem of a novel. On one of the Ten Thousand Islands, deep in the swamplands of Florida, we meet the Bigtree family, fake Native Americans and real alligator wrestlers with their own down-at-heel theme park. Unfortunately, the star wrestler and main attraction, Hilola, the children’s mother, has just succumbed to cancer, and a new flashy theme park The World of Darkness has opened on the mainland. Things are not looking good.
From then on in everything becomes weirder and darker. Whilst the eldest Bigtree, Kiwi, tries to integrate with normal life on the mainland, the two girls Ossie and Ava travel out into a swamp populated by ghosts, alligators, bobcats and the mysterious Bird Man; a world of mists, still rivers, secrets and stories, which might somewhere contain the crossing point into the Underworld. Ossie is planning to marry her boyfriend there, Louis Thanksgiving, a handsome 17 year old who died back in 1918 and was carried into the Underworld by buzzards. Ava searches for her sister, accompanied by her pet – a red baby alligator – and the Bird Man with his feathered coat.
This is writing to savour, descriptions to relish, a world of delights, horrors and downright weirdness. It had me looking up the Ten Thousand Islands on Google images, then trips to Florida, boat trips through the swamplands. Well maybe one day. And maybe one day I will meet Karen Russell too. Until then I look forward to devouring more of her books.