Karen Russell is on my list of six authors I want to read for the first time in 2014. I’m starting at the beginning with her first novel, a collection of interrelated short stories all set in the same swampy, beachy area of Florida. The hype in my head was MASSIVE and there was no way Russell was ever going to live up to such a beast.
Ten stories – all of them odd, all of them weird. Most of them are narrated by a child or teenager. They feel like coming-of-age stories. Many of them are allegorical in nature. And none of them end neatly. I’d even go so far as saying only one of them actually has a traditional beginning, middle, end narrative structure. So you’ve got to let that desire go immediately.
You have stories about alligator wrestling theme parks (which will eventually become Swamplandia!), little girls who sled out to sea on a crab shell never to be heard from again, and girls raised by wolves who must go to a reform school to learn how to live as human. The characters are strange and often unsettling. It can be hard to connect with the absurd plot lines at first, but soon you begin to see the humanity bleeding through the weird. And Russell at 25 creates some of the most imaginative and audacious imagery I’ve read – maybe ever.
So why only four stars instead of five? It took me a while to get invested. It took me too long to get over my initial frustration at how she ends her stories – or doesn’t end them, so to speak. Once I was able to let that go and just enjoy these brief slices of life for what they were, I was swept away and didn’t want to swim back to the mainland. That’s the magic Russell has created. She took me places I did not want to go, kicking and screaming, and left me bereft with their absence by the collection’s end.
Swamplandia!, I’m coming for you.