Monday, September 10, 2012

Hell is empty; all the devils are here

I wanted to like Swamplandia! but I couldn't really get into it. It took me try after try to get into it, and I never really succeeded; I only finished it because I wanted  to make the overdue fines worthwhile...

A depressing tale about a family business (and a family itself, local culture, and way of life) crumbling in the Everglades, the book is certainly well-written and evocative. The main character is Ava, a tween girl whose family all leave: her mother dies of cancer, her father heads to the mainland to work at a strip club to pay off debts, her brother goes to work for the family's corporate rivals, and her mentally unstable sister runs away to marry a long-dead (and possibly made-up) teenage boatman.  It has delightfully quirky elements and enough interesting dynamics  -- like alligator-wrestling, a tragic ghost story, or glimpses of irony and comedy in characters' seemingly ordinary lives.

But there were a few needlessly shocking parts (I fail to see how statutory rape, for instance, was in any way symbolic or relevant). And throughout the book, the themes of abandonment and failure were made brutally clear: failed government revitalization programs, inadequate education, islands cut off from the mainland, changing muddy coastlines, derelict boats, etc. The past, present, and future presented in the book are rather abysmal and hopeless. By the end of the book, instead of celebrating the intricate and highly complicated histories of Ava's swamp heritage, I was horrified and simply glad that the book ended with her making it out of a mental and physical hellhole.

That sense of relief, if not the overall story itself, was worth the $1.60 fine.

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