Swamplandia! by Karen Russell is a strange but engaging book. Set in the swamps of Florida, it's narrated by Ava Bigtree, a thirteen-year-old girl who aspires to be an alligator wrestler like her mother. When her mother dies and the family's alligator park Swamplandia! loses its star performer, Ava's strange but idyllic life starts to fracture. Her sister starts talking to ghosts, her father comes up with schemes to keep the park running, and her brother runs away to the mainland. And Ava herself must go on a journey deep into the swamps with a mysterious companion.
The strange is described as commonplace, and the commonplace treated as strange. It's this reversal that gives Swamplandia! a lot of its mystical atmosphere. This keeps you guessing as to whether this book includes supernatural elements or not. Is this a kind of magical realism with ghosts and the underworld? Are those things just childish daydreams? The style keeps you interested as mysteries are slowly presented, followed, and (mostly) wrapped up.
I'm having a hard time giving my thoughts on this one, and I think that's because what I expected and what I got were two different things. It's no fault of the author's; at most it's the fault of whoever wrote the back cover copy combined with me reading into it what I wanted. This is mostly a realistic fiction novel with the occasional touch of, like, magical realism, whereas I was expecting more of the latter, perhaps verging into the fantastic. Overall, this is a very good book, and it's not even in a genre I usually enjoy. Everything was written with a deft, assured hand, and even parts that might have turned me off were handled well. Good book.