Swamplandia! Karen Russell is young and talented, and has been given just about every age-appropriate honor there is — Best Young American Novelists, 20 Under 40,…
Book Review

Swamplandia!

Karen Russell is young and talented, and has been given just about every age-appropriate honor there is — Best Young American Novelists, 20 Under 40, 5 Under 35. With her debut novel, though, she’s leaving the kids’ table forever. The bewitching Swamplandia! is a tremendous achievement for anyone, period.

When Hilola Bigtree, professional alligator wrestler and star attraction at a Florida venue that calls itself ''the Number One Gator-Themed Park and Swamp Café in the area,'' dies in the vise grip not of some prehistoric behemoth but of unglamorous cancer, the family-owned tourist destination shrivels into insolvency. Likewise, the remaining Bigtree clan unspools in her absence, and Ava, the youngest of three children, can only watch as they drift apart. Her sister, Ossie, obsessed with the afterlife, carries out furtive relationships with the spirits of dead boys she claims possess her. Her brother, Kiwi, runs off to work for the World of Darkness, an amusement park designed to resemble hell.

The plot of Swamplandia! tilts toward the odd. Kiwi toils in his ersatz inferno; Ava goes on a quest to save Ossie after she elopes into the otherworldly wetlands with one of her phantom paramours. But Russell isn't a magic realist. In fact, the only truly magical things about this book are its effortless prose and its small, beautifully drawn cast of characters. Russell's writing is crowded with vivid descriptions and near synesthetic similes — a birdcall is ''a single note, held in an amber suspension of time, like a charcoal drawing of Icarus falling'' — and feels as densely organic as the swamp in which it is set. And while the novel deals in ghosts, whether actual ectoplasms or just unexorcisable memories, the characters, and their tale of family lost and found, remain triumphantly alive. A–

Originally posted Jan 19, 2011 Published in issue #1139 Jan 28, 2011 Order article reprints