SWAMPLANDIA! by Karen Russell (Review)

I don’t love much contemporary fiction, but this I loved.  I’ve been trying to pinpoint why this worked for me, and it’s not the plot.  The plot is a bit cheesy:  the Bigtree family runs an alligator wrestling attraction in Florida, and they fall apart after the mother dies of cancer.  So what is it that works?  The siblings are oddballs but not cloyingly so.  They’re not a collection of eccentricities like the characters in The Royal Tenenbaums, for example.  Instead, they’re devoted to each other even though they are each solitary. And though the Bigtrees are a sad bunch, the book never becomes overwhelmingly depressing.  In fact, there’s even humor to be found.

So, again, what is it that works for me?  First of all, I’m a sucker for teen angst stories.  Also, the ghost stories didn’t seem contrived to me. Finally, the writing sings.  Yes, some spots were a rough go for me (some background discussions about failed efforts to drain the swamps and Ava’s story in the second half of the novel, to name a couple), but, overall, Russell can tell stories, and this book is full of them. 

I’m not sure if this book has been marketed to book clubs, but I think it is a good fit for them.  There are lots of juicy topics for discussion:  family dynamics, growing up isolated on an island, government management of the swamps, the miseries of working in tourist traps, and ghosts.