But beyond the initial interest, the lasting appeal of Swamplandia! is not what sets the Bigtrees apart, but what draws them closer, to the reader and to each other: family ties.
In the sixth chapter of the novel, the narrative splits; now, in addition to Ava’s voice, readers have her brother’s, Kiwi’s, perspective to factor in. And even though the folks he meets on the mainland -- as opposed to the swamp, which the Bigtrees call home -- think that Kiwi is a bit odd, it’s nothing compared to the kind of madness that seems to characterize the rest of the family.
Having the second narrative voice is essential. Kiwi’s experience of the world is — in comparison — very material. His world is not terribly removed from Swamplandia! but it’s 40 miles west and south of it, past the Army Corps levees and drainage canals, past the triangle of new highways.
It offers a vitally important perspective, though still in keeping with the book’s themes. Kiwi is, like Ava, preoccupied with survival (on a variety of levels). But her concern operates at a more metaphysical level at times, partly rooted in her close relationship with her older sister, Osceola.
“Madness, as I understood it from books, meant a person who was open to the high white whine of everything.”
It runs throughout Swamplandia!: the thread of the high white whine of everything. (And through Karen Russell's writing style: her use of language is slightly mad as well.) But stronger still is the Bigtree line. The connections between members of the family, the connection between the Bigtrees and the swamp: these are the universals that draw the reader into the novel and secure an engagement. Maybe you bought the ticket because it was a novelty, but you stay in your seat because it feels true.
More here if you're interested, and if you want to follow along in my Orange Prize Longlist Madness.