Well done, but not to my taste. Russell's sentences are well crafted and she manages to create a sophisticated, well-spoken, yet amazingly innocent main character in Ava Bigtree. The story is compelling, a unique blend of realism and fantasy that truly mean anything can happen. Most of the novel is heartbreaking, as described by the labelling of the first chapter: "the beginning of the end"; the novel really is the story of the end of an era for this family. It is the end of the Bigtree children's childhoods, the end of their mother's life, and the end of the family business and home.
Unfortunately it was just a depressing novel. There are a few light hearted moments between Kiwi and Vijay, but otherwise the entire thing focuses so much on the dark aspects of life. I thought it was unnecessary to point out to the reader that Ava was traveling her own version of the river Styx; the Bird Man's poling through the swamp in search of the underworld was quite obvious enough. We are left to understand that life with Hilola was happy and carefree, but never shown this time; overall there just isn't any happiness in the novel.
Once again I find myself complaining that an author takes the convenient way out; when Kiwi stumbles on Ossie as Ava simultaneously is rescued by Park Rangers I felt that Russell was just quitting. Given the context of the whole novel and the role of ghosts and the afterlife, I think I would have found it more coherent if Kiwi crashed the plane (really the kid is not that coordinated and landing a plane is HARD); Ossie died of dehydration (would serve her stupid self); and Ava was eaten by the last Seth (really why wouldn't the alligator defend her territory more strongly). Then, the family reunion at the end could be with Hilola in some swampy afterlife rather than with the Chief in a crappy hotel room.
One final thought/question is about Kiwi's rescue. He clearly believes that Emily was not drowning but was faking. What is the deal with that? Is it simply an example of a spoiled rich girl seeking attention or is Kiwi wrong and he really did save her (but he can't believe it because of his own insecurities?) Or did Russell just want to label him Hell's Angel (if we think about his role later in saving his sister we could certainly label the swamp as Hell and he as the Angel coming down to rescue her) as a foreshadow? I truly don't know and must give Russell kudos again for such a complex novel. I just wish she could have made it a bit more chipper. After all, these characters themselves seem hopeful (with the possible exception of Ossie) and full of life; the reader shouldn't be left feeling so damn despondent.