Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the 2020 Reading List. I am continuing the journey with more contemporary female authors, last time getting to a radical feminist I will never forget. Next I decided to take on Karen Russell’s 2010 Floridian ghost story Swamplandia! This was my first official foray into a work that has been labelled “magical realism” (although Russell doesn’t seem to consider it under any certain thematic area) and I found that aspect to be quite restrained and very well done.
This was an outstanding read for many reasons, but Russell’s use of description has to take the top prize. The Bigtree family of Swamplandia! was a creation of Russell’s from an earlier short story, and we see most of their lives from the perspective of thirteen year old protagonist Ava. This leads to spectacular passages of out-there swamp spaces and creatures that both are well written and fun to imagine. If I had to nitpick Russell does rely on the use of simile a bit much in some of these passages, but the prose was so good it didn’t jump out at me often.
The other amazing part of the book was how the “magical” parts are blended into the storylines. We see young Ava’s journey with a mysterious guide into the “underworld” of the Ten Thousand Islands but also her older brother Kiwi as he navigates the ridiculous realities of the mainland in the wake of their mother’s death. And while we don’t get much of either their father the Chief or the middle child Ossie, there were plenty of reminiscent paragraphs that show them in various interesting ways.
I did find the narrative got a little off track toward the end, and Russell works in a very dark turn of events that while understood in retrospect was rather stunning. There were little signals throughout the tale I realized were in fact guides for this later horror, and it made for an explosive way to end the tale.
Overall I would have to say this book reminded me of Geek Love in some ways (family of performers gets broken up and the aftermath) and Russell’s characters have very intricate ways of seeing the weird worlds around them. This book was a joy to sit through and encouraged me to embrace a different way of conducting my reading for this list as I build out my career.
Up next I’m getting to what feels like essential reading right now and a book I should have gotten to long ago: Octavia Butler’s landmark 1979 sci-fi tale Kindred. I hope to do some genre switching by the end of this year, and have some other ideas for next year as well. Hope you are all enduring 2020 in whatever ways you can, and thanks for reading.
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cats. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.