18. Swamplandia!

I’m working my way through a list of 100 great books written by women. I wrote a post on it before, and you can see it and find the list by clicking here.

Bookshelf

In the past, when I wanted to find a good book to read at the library, I would wander the shelves, read the synopsis of any likely-looking book, and maybe even read the first few paragraphs before taking it home. But with this list, I know I’m going to read a good book. Or at least a book that enough people thought was good. So I simply get the book. No peeks. No hints. The books are mostly fiction, but a single book could be a mystery, a comedy, a fantasy or something unclassifiable. I love not knowing what to expect as I enter into each author’s world.

Sometimes, though, it’s confusing. I remember reading a crime novel towards the beginning of this project. I don’t read many of those. I thought perhaps it was a ghost story, or science fiction. When it turned out to be a pretty straight-up crime novel I had a good laugh.

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Swamplandia! is another one of those surprising novels. The tone is playful and light, the tale told through the eyes of a naive thirteen-year-old raised out in the Florida swamplands deep in her father’s delusions. My favorite quote, on page seven, should have given warning:

The Beginning of the End can feel a lot like the middle when you are living in it.

This is a story of a family’s unraveling. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the mother dies. She dies right at the beginning of this story. She was the glue.

What is challenging to me about this story comes directly from the confluence of two things: 1. I didn’t read the synopsis on the flap. and 2. Karen Russell wrote this story in a voice that made me keep thinking it was a semi-fantasy novel. I kept waiting for wondrous magical things to turn the tide. Once I got to the middle of the book I started to worry. And squirm. I didn’t like the places she was taking me. It felt like finding out that the Easter Bunny wasn’t real.

I stayed with it though. Russell has a wonderful way with words. And although it’s not fantasy, there’s enough ridiculous in the story to make it something surreal. I would say it’s a joy to read, but that would be denying the deep grief shimmering under the surface. I will say it’s a damn fine book.

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