In broad strokes, Swamplandia!, Karen Russell's debut novel, is about a family of career alligator wrestlers struggling to remain a culturally relevant tourist attraction off the coast of Florida. The Bigtrees are a proud family of self-invented Indians—i.e., white folks in Indian headdresses and gator-tooth necklaces—living in isolation, save for the ferries of tourists who visit them to watch the nightly shows of Seth wrestling (the gators are all named Seth for advertising purposes).
After the family's headliner, matriarch and alligator-wrestling champion Hilola Bigtree, dies—brought down by ovarian cancer, not the monsters she routinely wrestled—the boats of tourists simply stop arriving. Swamplandia!'s reputation as the region's number-one destination theme park is further compromised by the opening of a mainland competitor, a family-friendly theme park of the underworld called the World of Darkness. Debts start to mount. The Bigtrees struggle to save the park and each other.
One by one, Ava watches as her father, Chief Bigtree, and siblings abandon the family business to wrestle with their grief—and dreams—alone. "I didn't realize that one tragedy can beget another, and another—bright-eyed disasters flooding out of a death hole like bats out of a cave," Ava says.
Her brother, Kiwi, runs away to the mainland to work for the World of Darkness, with aspirations of graduating from Harvard. The chief leaves Swamplandia! in search of new investors to underwrite his plan of "carnival Darwinism." Her sister, Ossie, begins communicating with the dead in the hopes of reaching their dead mother. Instead, the 16-year-old finds an army of dead men to date and eventually elopes to the actual underworld with a ghost. In an offshoot of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, Ava pursues her.
Ava is the ideal narrator: young, funny, and relentlessly optimistic. When she witnesses the birth of a fiery red Seth, whose head is "the exact shape and shining hue of a large halved strawberry," a terrible hope grows inside her: to become a headlining Seth-wrestler and save Swamplandia!, and her fractured family, with the help of her lovely ruby girl.
Russell's prose is beautiful, vivid, and lovingly creepy—just like Florida itself. (The last thoughts in a dead man's head are "a series of O!s, round and empty, like the discarded rinds of screams.") But the pacing of Swamplandia! is a bit erratic. Kiwi is introduced as a second narrator halfway through, and his chapters, set in the World of Darkness, lack the direction that makes Ava's so captivating, undercutting some of the tension Russell builds.
But I'm nitpicking. Swamplandia! is a book written about the destructive powers of hope and grief. Russell backs into these themes slowly, like a swimmer staring at the beach while stepping into the sea, in order to keep from being overwhelmed. She's magnificent at it.