Babst, Morgan C. “The Floating World”, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2017.
“Way Down Yonder in New Orleans”
Set in New Orleans, “The Floating World” powerful novel follows the Boisdoré family . . . in the months after Katrina and gives readers a “profound, moving and authentically detailed picture of the storm’s emotional impact on those who lived through it.” There are three magic words in that sentence—New, Orleans and Katrina. If you follow my reviews you know that I was born and raised in New Orleans and that I was there during Katrina at which time I lost everything and was rescued by the National Guard and evacuated after the worst of the storm had hit. While I am no longer living there I will always be a New Orleanian and I make it a point to read every book that comes out about the city and the storm.
This is a novel about family, home, and grief, Hurricane Katrina and the city of New Orleans. As the storm is fast approaching the Louisiana coast, Cora Boisdoré refuses to leave the city. Her parents, Joe Boisdoré, an artist descended from freed slaves who became the city’s preeminent furniture makers, and his white “Uptown” wife, Dr. Tess Eshleman, are forced to evacuate without her and so begins a chain of events that leaves their marriage in shambles and Cora the victim or perpetrator of some violence mysterious even to herself.
This is at the center of the story. Cora’s sister, Del, returns to New Orleans from the successful life she built in New York City to find New Orleans in ruins and her family deeply alienated from one another. As she tries to figure out what happened to her sister, she must also deal with the racial history of the city and the trauma of a disaster that was not, in fact, some random act of God but an avoidable tragedy that came upon both separately and together, each member of the Boisdoré clan who now must find the strength to remake a home in a city that will never again be what it once was. What many do not know is that in order to understand New Orleans, it is necessary to understand the city’s past. It is also important to remember that Hurricane Katrina is considered to be “the mother of all storms.”
The novel alternates the perspectives of the characters. Tess is a white doctor who comes from money, and her husband, Joe, a Creole artist. They have two adult daughters, Cora and Del. Cora is the only one to stay for the storm; Del is away in New York and the others evacuate. Though Tess will eventually come to her daughter’s aid, and Del will return, Cora sees something in the 25 days she’s without her family that leaves her even more disoriented than before.
Most of the story takes place after Katrina hits land and we get a sense of inescapable loss throughout the novel. At times the sense of loss becomes almost oppressive. In reality the storm’s impact was unrelenting and I can vouch for that having been there as Katrina raged.
Any novel of the South has to deal with race in some way and “The Floating World” does so. Cora is romantically involved with Troy, an African-American restaurant worker whose sister, Reyna, is mentally ill. Though Joe identifies as Creole, and Cora and Del are biracial, they are economically privileged. It was clever for writer Babst to introduce the poorer Troy and Reyna to a book about Katrina — a storm that devastated so many poor African-American lives.. Unfortunately, Reyna rarely rises above stereotype and her fate is too often and too superficially linked to Cora’s story, without recognizing her as a complex character and mother of two. The novel is New Orleans and I believe you have to be from New Orleans to understand what I mean by that. It is an authentic, detailed picture of the physical and emotional geography of the city, before, during, and after Katrina, its social strata, its racial complications and the many cultural details that define its character. You might soon find yourself doing laundry on Mondays while red beans cook on the stove after you made groceries to get the ingredients you needed to make them.
Familial tensions come to a head in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and we get to read all about it. We feel “the devastated and devastating landscape of post-Katrina New Orleans with images that are at once surreal and painfully real.”