The Floating World by C. Morgan Babst (Contemporary Novel, 2017).
This novel focuses on an multi-racial family struggling to deal with Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The disaster exaggerates and forces them to confront underlying tensions and issues none of them are eager to admit to, let alone confront.
Tess, the mother, is a wealthy white woman and professional psychiatrist. Her husband, Joe, is an artist descended from freed slaves who became the city’s preeminent makings of fine furniture. Joe’s elderly father, who never approved of his two son’s failure to follow him in the family business (or of him marrying some “Uptown” white woman) is already suffering from worsening dementia. Joe and Tess have two daughters: Del, who has already fled New Orleans for a career in New York City and Cora, who has had periodic bouts of depression and other emotional/psychological issues.
I found the book’s structure of interest. The first part takes place forty-some days AFTER the storm struck. We learn that Cora refused to join the rest of the family in evacuating and that now she is in a near-catatonic state as a result of horrific experiences the others have almost zero knowledge of. Their ruined home mirrors a ruined marriage, which we’ll learn more of later. And a guilt-ridden Del has reluctantly sacrificed her comfortable New York life for a dutiful (if grim-faced) return.
This opening section establishes all the main characters and brings up semi-mysterious issues that the next two parts will flesh out and finally resolve.
Part Two doubles back to the storm itself and the tortured days immediately after. And Part Three jumps back to where Part One left off, revealing all the hidden secrets and plotting a future course for all concerned.
The storm and its ruinous aftermath are vividly described. Class, racial and other social divides come into play, and inevitably nobody is destined to live happily-ever-after. Still, the resolution (authored by New Orleans native who got out just ahead of the hurricane and only within the last year has returned from her own New York sojourn) is intelligent and honest, while also offering hope and understanding where appropriate.
This is a first novel, and a good one, but Babst has been publishing shorter works for some time and at least one of her essays was honored in a Best of the Year type anthology. As a portrait of “the Big Easy,” it feels authentic with plenty of telling details, as well as deeply felt and very capably written.