New Orleans native C. Morgan Babst evacuated one day before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Three post-apocalyptic images never left her: a grim waterline, pervasive gray mud, and spray-paint X-codes tattooed by rescue crews—declaring how many saved, how many dead in every building. These visions haunt her eloquent, elegiac debut novel, The Floating World.
“I couldn’t not write this book,” says Babst, who Kirkus reached by phone at home in New Orleans, where she now lives with her husband and child, after 11 years in New York. “Katrina was one of those things that turns your expectations or preconceptions about what life is going to be on its head.”
Babst studied writing at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Yale, and NYU. Her work has appeared in the Oxford American, Guernica, the Harvard Review, LitHub, and the New Orleans Review; and her treatise on New Orleans funeral culture (“Death Is a Way to Be,” Guernica, June 15, 2015) was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016.
“I was a very young woman when it happened,” she says of Katrina, which occurred two years after she graduated college, “and I still had the naïve expectation that the world took care of its people. There’s nothing Katrina [made clearer] than the fact that that is not the case. The city was abandoned by every level of government, including the Army Corps of Engineers, and in the scramble for everybody to survive, we often abandoned each other.”
Babst achieves an aching authenticity in the emotional story of the Boisdorés, descendants of old New Orleans Creoles, who leave their adult daughter, Cora, to ride out Katrina alone at the family home. After the hurricane, her parents—Joe, an artist and primary caregiver for his father, Vincent, a revered cabinetmaker with dementia; and Tess, a psychiatrist from a wealthy white uptown family—find Cora traumatized, speechless, and nearly catatonic. Their story, which flows back and forth through time, begins on October 15, 2005, 47 days after landfall:
“The house bobbed in a dark lake,” Babst writes. “The flood was gone, but Cora still felt it wrapped around her waist, its head nestled on her hip. She laid her hands out, palms on its surface, and the drifting hem of her nightshirt fingered her thighs. Under her feet, lake bed slipped: pebbles and grit, mud broken into scales that curled up at their edges.”
Cora has returned to the scene of a nightmare: her friend Troy’s flood-ravaged home houses the unclaimed dead body of his sister, Reyna. As she flashes on violent and frenzied memories of the storm, a ghostly refrain pervades her thoughts: “Blot it out, Mrs. Randsell had told her....Blot it out ...” she writes.
“That scene encapsulates the entire emotional experience of Katrina—a house in the darkness,” Babst says. “Something has died, and it’s trying to take you along with it.”
When Adelaide (“Del”) Boisdoré returns from New York to help her family rebuild, she finds her sister deranged, her parents estranged, and her grandfather implacable. The Floating World takes turns in all their consciousnesses, becoming a polyphonic portrait of a city taken by storm.
“Being here [in New Orleans right] after the storm, it was so much easier to deal with one problem at a time: this house, this person,” Babst says. “But when we were still evacuated, watching everything happen on the screen, it was like firehoses of awfulness—your brain sort of spins out because you can’t take all that in at once. Part of my project with the book was to bring that disaster down to the level of one family, one house, one tragedy, because the media depiction of it is stultifying.”
The aim is ably achieved. In a starred review, Kirkus calls The Floating World “deeply felt and beautifully written; a major addition to the literature of Katrina.”
“There have been so many stories told about us to others,” says Babst, who dedicates the book “for New Orleans.” “I thought we needed a story that was of us and for us.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.