From the celebrated twenty-nine-year-old author of the everywhere-heralded short-story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (“How I wish these were my own words, instead of the breakneck demon writer Karen Russell’s . . . Run for your life. This girl is on fire”—Los Angeles Times Book Review) comes a blazingly original debut novel that takes us back to the swamps of the Florida Everglades, and introduces us to Ava Bigtree, an unforgettable young heroine.
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.
Against a backdrop of hauntingly fecund plant life animated by ancient lizards and lawless hungers, Karen Russell has written an utterly singular novel about a family’s struggle to stay afloat in a world that is inexorably sinking. An arrestingly beautiful and inventive work from a vibrant new voice in fiction.
“Karen Russell’s worlds, like her protagonists, are fierce and wondrous and hilarious and heartbreaking, and Swamplandia! features everything a reader could want, from bears with bad rhythm to Live Chicken Thursdays to as visceral and dazzling a portrait of south Florida’s now almost destroyed wilderness as you’re likely to read. But mostly it’s a gorgeous and wrenching portrait of sibling love in all its helpless and furious and panicked indefatigability, and of one girl’s determination to do what she can to hold what’s left of her family together.” —Jim Shepard, author of Like You'd Understand Anyway and You Think That's Bad
“Karen Russell is a fine purveyor of the unexpected, humorous and razor-sharp description . . . Exactly often enough, her vivid description gives way to a deftly inserted truth. . . . Swamplandia! flashes brilliantly—holographically—between a surreal tale brimming with sophisticated whimsy and an all-too-realistic portrait of a quaint but dysfunctional family under pressure in a world that threatens to make them obsolete. . . . Ava is a true contemporary heroine and not easily forgotten.” —Pam Houston, More
“Russell does what she does best here—presenting a world we recognize and imbuing it with magical mysticism—and does it brilliantly. The surreal is never a prop, and there’s a heart to the writing that goes beyond the sensational. The novel’s backbone is in the nuanced intricacies of its characters, in their hopes and fears whether tangible or touchingly naïve. . . . Russell’s sentences are well-crafted miniatures building to create a world so enchanted that we are both comforted and devastated to realize that it’s our own. Swamplandia! is a dizzying cocktail of heartbreak and humor, a first novel worthy of celebration.” —Laurie Ann Cedilnik, Bust
“[A] cunning first novel. . . . Russell's willingness to lend flesh and blood to her fanciful, fantastical creations gives this spry novel a potent punch and announces an enthralling new beginning for a quickly evolving young author.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Brilliant, funny, original . . . also creepy and sinister . . . Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is every bit as good as her short stories promised it would be. This book will not leave my mind.” —Stephen King
“A wonderfully fertile novel by an unfairly talented writer.” —Joseph O’Neill, author of Blood-Dark Track: A Family History
“I would cross even the most crocodile and yellow-fever infested swamp just to spend an hour with Russell’s prose. She has an imagination like Calvino, an ear like Tennyson, a heart like Carson McCullers, an observing intelligence like Marianne Moore; what I really mean to say is she is a strange and wonderful writer like none other I know.” —Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances
“Lavishly imagined and spectacularly crafted. . . . Ravishing, elegiac, funny, and brilliantly inquisitive, Russell’s archetypal swamp saga tells a mystical yet rooted tale of three innocents who come of age through trials of water, fire, and air.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
“A love song to paradise and innocence lost. This wildly imaginative debut novel . . . delivers.” —Sally Bissell, Library Journal (starred review)
Read the story on which this novel is based, "Ava Wrestles the Alligator"
Karen Russell, a native of Miami, has been featured in The New Yorker’s debut fiction issue and on The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list, and was chosen as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. In 2009, she received the 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation. Three of her short stories have been selected for the Best American Short Stories volumes. She is currently writer-in-residence at Bard College.