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The Floating World

Review

The Floating World

We recently passed the 12-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the massive storm that permanently altered the geography and economy of New Orleans back in 2005. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that for most of the country, Katrina is now just a distant memory of a terrible disaster, something to remember once a year when that anniversary comes around again. But for the people who lived in New Orleans --- those who evacuated and never returned, those who rebuilt, and those who have come there since --- it’s clear that Katrina is never far from their minds.

C. Morgan Babst, who lived in New Orleans and evacuated just a day before Katrina made landfall, recently returned to her beloved city after several years living in New York. This debut novelist may feel a sort of sympathy or even kinship with one of her characters in THE FLOATING WORLD, Del, who, at the novel’s opening, is returning to her native New Orleans after living for several years in New York. In Del’s timeline, Katrina happened weeks --- not years --- earlier, and she’s fleeing both a dead-end job and an awkward romantic relationship, heading back to a home that she longs for but that may not exist anymore.

"One of the things that’s easy to forget about huge natural disasters --- especially if you’re hundreds or thousands of miles away --- is the human scale of these incredible acts of nature. That’s what Babst captures so poignantly in her debut novel..."

Precipitating Del’s return is the near-silence of her older sister, Cora, who refused to evacuate New Orleans with her parents as Katrina bore down on the city. Instead, she stayed behind with her boyfriend --- and, as Del soon discovers, either witnessed or precipitated a horrible act of violence while she waited for the floodwaters to recede. Cora, who has a history of depression, is nearly catatonic, and her mother, Tess, a psychiatrist, feels powerless to help her.

Tess and her husband, Joe, are also facing a crisis prompted --- or deepened --- by Katrina. Tess, who’s white, resents Joe, who’s black, for what she views as weakness, his willingness to be turned away by authorities rather than insisting on storming back into the city to rescue Cora in the storm’s immediate aftermath. Instead, Joe --- who’s also coping with the rapid mental decline and advancing dementia of his father --- turned around and waited for Cora to reemerge on her own.

One of the things that’s easy to forget about huge natural disasters --- especially if you’re hundreds or thousands of miles away --- is the human scale of these incredible acts of nature. That’s what Babst captures so poignantly in her debut novel, as she illustrates the fissures in the Boisdoré family, tiny cracks that Katrina magnifies into huge rifts and crevices. Other themes run through the book as well --- issues of mental illness and competence, as well as the power and limitations of art (Joe and his father are both artists, the elder Boisdoré one of the preeminent cabinetmakers of his generation, and the novel’s title is a homage to Japanese art, particularly the iconic work of Hokusai).

But resurfacing again and again here, perhaps unsurprisingly but no less poignantly for that, are images and meditations on the idea of “home”: “As soon as you left, the rope was cut, the boats burned, and time rushed in like a river in flood. Home was a place beyond the rain and the long night. There was no way back. Not unless you were willing to swim, and from what she’d heard, the current was strong, the waves high and crested with fire, salty as tears.” Some characters in THE FLOATING WORLD work hard to come back home, others forge a new path entirely, but it’s clear that none of them will be able to return to precisely the place they fled before or after Katrina.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 27, 2017

The Floating World
by C. Morgan Babst

  • Publication Date: October 2, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 1616208635
  • ISBN-13: 9781616208639