“I nodded hard to indicate that I knew my history well. (Please! Ladies and gentlemen of the mainland, I cleaned the history, I dusted the dead mosquitoes off the history on summer mornings.)” (Swamplandia! by Karen Russell)
Although attaching an exclamation mark to the end of a title might make for some surprising and interesting sentences scattered throughout the book, do not mistake this grammatical mark for one that foretells excitement or happiness. This is not a book that sits easily with a reader or bestows lovely, tingly feelings; the blurb on the cover uses an adjective that is highly appropriate: haunting. I can’t pretend to be an expert on the motivations of modern literature, but if its aim is to imagine new scenes and situations and to compose sentences that have never been uttered or written before – this book succeeds.
Swamplandia! changes from a dreamy magical realism to a sort of realistic horror with terrifying skill and speed. At times it reminded me of “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, at others of the almost disgusting realism I associate with”The Confederacy of Dunces”, and at others of a true crime novel. Its tendency to switch tone, if not genre, must be part of its unsettling nature. The reader, by being immersed in the thoughts of the main character, is lulled into a sense of complacency; just like the other people on the swamp, it is so much easier to believe in the fantasy than to deduce a rational explanation for events. This is a novel that plays with our perception of reality like an easily breakable barbie doll – but it never truly enters the realm of fantasy, it only explores the human desire to explain events by supernatural means and brings the reader into that ongoing discussion. Altogether an unsettling, yet rather interesting read.