Just a few days ago, I waxed lovingly over any book that gives me a taste of old Florida. Not necessarily old, as in long ago, but the small towns with dirt roads, the fishing camps, the undiscovered piece of Florida that hasn't yet been touched by tourists.
So this book has been on my radar for a long time. I intentionally skipped over any detailed synopsis because I wanted to explore this one, and languish in the side of Florida that I love. Entertainment Weekly made it hard to resist...they wouldn't stop talking about it.
Synopsis: The Bigtree family...faux Indian, alligator-wrestlers, and owners of a tourist attraction on a small island off the coast of Florida, has provided decades of kitschy entertainment to visitors. Granted, their life has been isolated, but the three children Ava, Osceola and Kiwi, don't really know any better. But their mother has recently died of an aggressive ovarian cancer, and things have fallen apart. Their theme park is beginning to fail due to a nearby competitor that calls itself the World of Darkness. The adults are promptly dispatched...Grandpa to an old-folks home because of Alzheimer's, and Chief (dad) to the mainland to conduct some sort of mysterious business to generate funds to renovate Swamplandia. The waifs are alone.
Kiwi, the oldest, runs off to work at the World of Darkness, a feeble attempt at helping with debt obligations. Osceola, showing signs of depression, begins to have love affairs with ghosts. Ava, our primarily narrator in the Bigtree story, and the youngest of the three children at 13, fantasizes at locating a gator-wrestling contest that she can win and cash in for big bucks. Until Osceola goes missing, and Ava must go on a quest to find her with the help of a strange Gypsy-like fellow called the Bird Man.
This is a tale of clashing worlds, of a family in ruin, of the loss of innocence, and a coming-of-age in a way that has never been told. It is a story that blends heartbreak with fantasy, tackiness with wonder - an extremely ambitious endeavor for a debut novelist.
My thoughts: It was tempting to sit and let this review brew in my mind for a few weeks, but I suspect that would not have helped. I struggle with my thoughts on this one. I had very high expectations for this book for all the reasons I listed, and those expectations were not met. Yet I'm finding the story to be haunting and unforgettable.
The first half of the book is simply bizarre and maddening. These children are bright and precocious, but have been neglected. Even when the mother was alive, they were only half-assed home schooled, and alienated from reality. In fact, as I was listening, I wasn't completely sure what year this was taking place. It was only when Kiwi ran away to work at the World of Darkness did I realize it was modern day. And a 16 year-old that has to have seances to interact with other teenagers that are ghosts? I wanted to have a smack down with the father when he explains it away by calling it a "phase".
Then there was a long tale about Osceola's ghost boyfriend, the dredgeman. This added an element of fantasy, but I'm not sure it was a worthwhile detour.
But as the book progresses into the second half, it becomes sinister, and I started to feel anxious and twitchy. As a mother of teenage children, this was not headed in a good direction and I could barely get through it. It nearly made my physically ill. I've read hundreds of books that involve dark circumstances and children, but this particular one just got to me.
I can attribute much of my emotional upheaval to the incredible writing of Ms. Russell. Her prose was masterful, and there is no doubt in my mind that she is blessed with a special talent. The plot is unique as well. I can pretty much guarantee you won't have read anything quite like this book.
But I'm glad it is over. If you are confused, then you aren't the only one.
A few words about the audio production: To accommodate the two narrators in the story, Ava and Kiwi, our readers were Arielle Sitrick and David Ackroyd. I've not listened to either before, and in fact I believe this may be Arielle's first project as a reader. While both of them did a fine job, neither felt right. Arielle sounded VERY young, too young for a 13 year old. And David sounded too old for 17 year old Kiwi. Therefore, I can't give a glowing recommendation to this audio experience.
3.5 out of 5 stars