This novel which takes place during and after Hurricane Katrina (which hit in August 2005) is almost unremittingly depressing. It centers on the Boisdoré family. Joe, the father, is a Creole descended from freed slaves. Tess, the mother, is from the white upper class, and is pretty much a despicable person. She “settled” for Joe when her high school crush, the white aristocratic Augie, married her best friend Madge. Madge died five years before however from cancer.
The two grown, mixed-race daughters of Joe and Tess, Del (short for Adelaide) and Cora, are in various stages of crisis. Cora, who stayed in the city during the hurricane, is now almost catatonic, presumably suffering from PTSD, although she had a history of depression even before the storm. Del, who was in New York, is suffused with guilt for not having been there in New Orleans to help Cora. Cora and Del also each have romantic interests who, however, remain mostly ciphers, presumably included to illuminate aspects of the girls’ personalities.
Another main character is Joe’s father Vincent. He has Lewy body dementia (LBD,) a progressive brain disorder in which Lewy bodies (abnormal deposits of a protein called alpha-synuclein) build up in areas of the brain that regulate behavior, cognition, and movement. (As the Mayo Clinic website explains, this is the second most common type of progressive dementia after Alzheimer’s disease dementia.) A great deal of the narrative is devoted to Vincent’s dissociation as his mind drifts between the past and present.
As the story begins, Del rushes back to Louisiana to try to help her family. Gradually, we find out (to an extent) what happened to Cora during the storm that caused her trauma, and how Del, always protective of Cora, acts to protect and heal her.
Finally, Katrina is also a main “character” in this book. For those who think a city’s problems are over when the storm passes, this story will serve as a useful (and horrifying) corrective.
This passage, for example, describes what Del sees as she drives through the city over a month after Katrina’s landfall:
“There was nobody out on the street, nobody sitting on their porches. Electrical poles titled over the sidewalks, trailing their wires like trees brought down by vines, and everywhere a broken gray crust of dirt covered the concrete, the grass, the trashcans and bicycles, sofas and potted plants strewn on front lawns. On every block, disabled cars had been stranded along the curb, a thick swamp of mud on their upholstery, so that when the occasional undamaged sedan appeared in a driveway beside a flungopen house, it gleamed so brightly you saw stars.”
The outsides of houses, surrounded by “mud-coffined grass” were marked by authorities to indicate if any dead bodies were within. And the insides of the houses were “all flooded so bad the furniture lay overturned in heaps on the floor, every wall stippled with black mold.”
The world’s attention turns elsewhere after a hurricane departs. For those directly affected, however, the damage to infrastructure, housing, jobs, water and food supplies, access to medical care, and effects of long-lasting psychological trauma continue to be a challenge. This book highlights what the victims face both during and after the storm.
Discussion: I didn’t find any of the characters very appealing, except for Joe. Tess resented him for not defying police to go back and get Cora after the storm, but Tess is clueless about what it means to be a person of color in relation to the police. Nevertheless, she uses her anger as an excuse to turn to Augie.
My main criticism, however, is that to me, much of the writing meets the definition of what author Ayelet Waldman once called “bore-geous.” This is writing, as she describes it, with “lush and richly imagined bits of narrative – long, lovely descriptions of characters and scenery . . . in which nothing whatsoever was going on.” In short, the writing may be good, but the content is desultory and often just boring.
Evaluation: The tensions of race and class come to the forefront during and after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in this story of a mixed-race family affected by the storm. This bleak story ultimately fell short for me, however. I thought the characters were unappealing, and not really fleshed out enough. Moreover, the writing was too consciously literary rather than focused on the action, so that in the end, I didn’t really even feel I knew all that had happened in the plot.
Published by Algonquin Books, 2017