Thursday, May 17, 2012
Oh man, I seriously did not like this book. I really thought I would. It had gotten a ton of positive press last year when it first came out. I read lots about it and it's been sitting on my amazon wishlist for months, but every time I went back to read the description something kept putting me off. A couple weeks ago I went looking for something new to read and downloaded a bunch of samples from some books (including 50 Shades of Grey... don't judge me; I'm embarrassed enough. It was pretty awful... that being said the sample didn't cover any of the naughty bits so I did request it from the library. We'll see if I actually read it). Swamplandia! grabbed me from the first chapter. It was the most interesting of all the beginnings that I read but that didn't last very long.
Spoilers ahead. Do not read past this line if you don't want lots of specific plot details:
Swamplandia! is the story of Ava Bigtree, whose family lives on an island in the Florida swamps. Her parents, Hilola and Chief Bigtree run a weird little show called Swamplandia! where the family wrestles alligators. When the story opens, Ava's mother has died of cancer and the family is facing massive debt. Ava's grandfather, Sawtooth, is on the mainland in a retirement home and it doesn't take long for her older brother, Kiwi, to also leave him. He is brilliant and desperately wants to go to college and help the family make money, although he is quite naive about how much he can actually make. He gets a job at a competing amusement park called World of Darkness that is based on Dante's Inferno. Kiwi is pretty funny. He uses all these big SAT words and is endlessly mocked for it until he becomes a hero in his own way and figures out how to make it in a normal world, far away from wrestling alligators. Kiwi has his own chapters, told in third person, that I found to be much more interesting that Ava's, which are told in first person. When Kiwi thinks in big words, it makes absolute sense because he is dying for an ivy league education and has prepared his whole life for that by studying everything. He even walks around taking "field notes" of everything he sees, which he is endlessly mocked for by his peers.
Once Kiwi leaves home, it doesn't take long for the Chief to also go, heading to the town of Loomis to make money for the family. He leaves 16 year old Osceola (Ossie) and 13 year old Ava alone on the island. Ossie is clearly mentally unbalanced. She keeps thinking she communicates with ghosts and eventually she falls in love with the ghost of a dead teenager from the 1930s, named Louis Thanksgiving. This is where the book lost me. I'm all for fantasy, but this book was weirdly undefined in terms of genre. Ossie launched into this long, boring story all about Louis' life and not long after that took off "with him". Ava, being 13, doesn't really understand what is happening here and I wasn't entirely sure either. Would this book have an element of magical realism or fantasy to it? Nope, it seems at the end that Ossie was just crazy.
This leaves me to Ava. While reading some reviews of the book before starting it, I saw that she gets raped towards the end of the book so I was on the look out for that all this time. After Ossie leaves, Ava is alone on the island. This guy called the Bird Man shows up. Apparently there are wandering hermits in Florida who drive off destructive birds for a price. He offers to guide Ava to the Underworld so she can rescue her sister. Again, I was waiting for a trippy updated Greek mythology moment, but that didn't happen. Turns out the Bird Man is just a pedophile and was making up the whole Underworld thing to trick a naive teenager. Ava does seem desperate for his attention and does things like hold his hand or want him to pay more attention to her, so it's unclear whether the rape is malicious or a horrible miscommunication. Anyway, she is able to flee from him and ends up rescued by a park ranger, who reunites her with Kiwi and Ossie (who decided not to kill herself to be with the ghost fiance and was found by Kiwi on his first day flying a plane... oh god, long story, I can't go through this all again!).
My big problem with the book besides the weird Underworld non-magical realism was Ava's use of ridiculous vocabulary too. It made sense for Kiwi but not so much for Ava since she was younger and didn't have the same thirst for knowledge that Kiwi did. Also there was WAY too much description in Ava's chapters. She spends most of the time in her own head, rarely conversing with the Bird Man and to be honest, her descriptions of everything in the swamp was absolutely endless. I found myself skimming so much. As I said earlier, Kiwi's chapters were more interesting. Maybe I just don't care about ridiculously long descriptions about Florida swamps. At least Kiwi had some interesting dialogue and adventures.
I can't talk about this book anymore because it annoyed me so much. Onto something much better tonight, I hope!
Here's some more positive reviews from the NY Times and NPR, as well as an article about the possible HBO adaptation of the book.
Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble (happy, Max?!)