Swamplandia!Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The New York Times ranked Swamplandia! as one of its notable books for 2011, and I found the first forty pages lovely and engrossing, with a bizarre plot that seemed to examine the notions of time and memory. And then, after the first forty pages, I became somewhat indifferent to this book. It seemed sloppy and amateurish. I kept thinking: "Well, if it's a notable book for 2011, I have to be missing something, right?"

But I don't think so. Russell's writing is highly--and often overly--stylized. The plot was awkward. The characters were often two dimensional. Larger issues were not resolved or were skirted around. The symbolism is often heavy-handed and cliched.

And yet, I wouldn't give up on Russell yet. She's young and has talent. There were moments--unfortunately rather spread out and few--but moments nonetheless where I was dazzled by her writing's poignancy, poetry, and insight.

Here's such a moment:

"'God' was a word I used as a spell-breaker. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't. 'God,' I'd whisper, feeling sometimes an emptiness and sometimes a spreading warmth. If a word is just a container for feeling, or a little matchstick that you strike against yourself--a tiny, fiery summons--then probably I could have said anything, called any name, who knows? I didn't have a normal kid's ideas of the Lord as an elderly mainland guy on a throne. The God I prayed to I thought of as the mother, the memory of love. She was my own mother sometimes, baggy-eyed and smiling in the Chief's heavy canvas work clothes in the morning, one of the Chief's cigarettes hanging from her mouth. The Our Father and the Hail Mary I'd picked up somehow by osmosis but it was her name I invoked out there, her memory I summoned like a wind I could lean into, and I liked this prayer much better: Mom, please help me to find Ossie. Please help me to make the net" (178).

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