GENRES/ SUBJECTS: Literary, Southern Gothic, 1980s
TRIGGER WARNING: CHILD RAPE
The Bigtree alligator-wrestling dynasty is in decline, and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, formerly #1 in the region, is swiftly being encroached upon by a fearsome and sophisticated competitor called the World of Darkness. Ava’s mother, the park’s indomitable headliner, has just died; her sister, Ossie, has fallen in love with a spooky character known as the Dredgeman, who may or may not be an actual ghost; and her brilliant big brother, Kiwi, who dreams of becoming a scholar, has just defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their family business from going under. Ava’s father, affectionately known as Chief Bigtree, is AWOL; and that leaves Ava, a resourceful but terrified thirteen, to manage ninety-eight gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief.
Swamplandia! is a strange book. It’s not really what I thought it would be when I started reading it. From the blurb, I was expecting some kind of fantasy, and through the beginning maybe a bit of magical realism. But it’s really more literary fiction with a Southern Gothic bend.
It starts out so well! Most of the book has a very meandering, reflective quality — documenting the lives and eccentricities of the various Bigtree family members. This really works for the setting in the Florida Everglades and the unusual life the family has — running a failing alligator-wrestling side-show. I really liked the descriptive, atmospheric writing and I thought the characters were really good, especially 13-year-old Ava, who is precocious, brave and self-reliant.
This all changes about three-quarters through the book. Basically, Ava goes on a journey to find her sister (who thinks she’s eloping with a ghost), accompanied by the seemingly kind (if odd) Bird Man. As they journey closer to the “underworld” the writing is incredibly dark and atmospheric. There’s this sort of creeping suspicion that everything is not what it seems. This was when I realised there weren’t going to be any fantasy elements at all. But it was still working for me.
Then around about page 260 (of a 300-page book!) from one paragraph to the next, the Bird Man hits, undresses and rapes an exhausted Ava. I actually had to go back and read it a couple of times because I completely missed any kind of lead up. It was so sudden and unexpected. After this, Ava finds her way back and the family are eventually reunited. At this point, everything began to drag and wander. There was no resolution to the Bird Man/ rape storyline, or to the other storyline of Kiwi and Chief trying to pay off Swamplandia’s debt. It felt unsatisfying and lacked the weight and consideration needed for such an important and emotional plot point.
To be honest, Swamplandia! was unique and moody, and I would have rated it higher. But the last 50 pages were a major disappointment and bit of a washout.