Karen Russell's debut novel opens with a clash of premises: Hilola Bigtree, bathed in starlight before her adoring daughter, dives off a platform to swim with a congregation of alligators. As far as traditional romantic tropes go, Russell's melodic descriptions of a swamp-dwelling, gator-wrestling family in decline certainly redefine the themes of dysfunctionality, misplaced spiritualism and fragile dreams. They also won her a place on the long list for the 2011 Orange Prize.
Swamplandia! unfolds through the eyes of 13-year-old Ava Bigtree after her mother Hilola's death. Although determined to step up to the now- vacant position of star attraction at the family's crumbling gator-themed park, she also has to contend with her aloof father, an older sister immersed in the world of Ouija boards, and her brother's defection to a rival business.
Bright without being precocious, Ava's engaging narrative is proof of Russell's undoubted talent as a storyteller. This is a haunting, spellbinding work that transforms an uninviting swamp into an eerie, myth-laced mural.