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Novel concepts: 'Swamplandia!'

March 31, 2011 - Ray Eckenrode

If you like the fiction of John Irving, Michael Chabon or Richard Russo, we’d like to strongly recommend to you, “Swamplandia!,” the astonishing debut novel from Karen Russell, about a rundown Everglades amusement park and the proud but peculiar family who runs it and the treacheries of enduring grief.

There’s some of Irving’s love of dread, Chabon’s richness of character and Russo’s small-town pathos, but Russell’s prose is so fresh and so flowing it’s hard to imagine her work as derivative of anything.

Talk about “you had me at hello,” here’s Russell’s opening paragraph:

Our mother performed in starlight. Whose innovation this was I never discovered. Probably it was Chief Bigtree’s idea, and it was a good one—to blank the follow spot and let a sharp moon cut across the sky, unchaperoned; to kill the microphone; to leave the stage lights’ tin eyelids scrolled and give the tourists in the stands a chance to enjoy the darkness of our island; to encourage the whole stadium to gulp air along with Swamplandia!’s star performer, the world-famous alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree. Four times a week, our mother climbed the ladder above the Gator Pit in a green two-piece bathing suit and stood on the edge of the diving board, breathing. If it was windy, her long hair flew around her face, but the rest of her stayed motionless. Nights in the swamp were dark and star-lepered—our island was thirty-odd miles off the grid of mainland lights—and although your naked eye could easily find the ball of Venus and the sapphire hairs of the Pleiades, our mother’s body was just lines, a smudge against the palm trees.

It gets better. In fact, the first three pages of “Swamplandia!” are about as better at fiction writing gets. We would say that we can’t remember a better debut but we can. Junot Diaz did the same kind of thing in 2007 with “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Interestingly, both Russell and Diaz made their mark as short story writers, before converting one of their acclaimed stories into their first novel.

You’ll find links at right (over there --->) for the book’s Amazon page, publisher’s page and a few high-profile reviews.

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