The Floating World by C. Morgan Babst


Thanks to Liz for recommending this book; it’s been a great read. The title made me think it had some connection to the “pleasure” district of Edo period Japan (1600-1867) which I came to know through my affection for Japanese woodblock prints. Well, of course there is a connection:  this book is set in New Orleans at the time of Katrina. One of the characters, looking at prints of the Hokusai series “36 views of Mount Fuji,” recalled that she had been told that Ukiyo-e refers to pictures of the floating world. She came to understand the meaning was that even a mountain was ephemeral and that everything is mortal.

With a relatively small cast the author introduces us to the key archetypal characters of that city. These characters are not just the types they represent, but come alive. There’s Tess, from an old-money white family, who married Joe Boisdoré, a Creole whose father Vincent had been a renown furniture maker for the rich. Vincent gives us a long view of New Orleans as his dementia has him dropping in on the New Orleans of the distant past. Joe had strayed from his father’s profession to become a successful sculptor working in wood. They had two daughters Cora and Adelaide (Del); Cora was troubled, though she lived successfully on her own, working at a restaurant. Del had made her way to New York. Troy, an African-American, was Cora’s co-worker and sometime boyfriend; his sister Reyna who suffered mental illness and her two sons play roles in the plot as well.

Joe and Tess leave the city, following the evacuation order, while the fragile Cora refuses to do so. Joe tries unsuccessfully to get back into the city, and the stress of not knowing if Cora survived adds to the tension in Tess and Joe’s marriage. She is found with the elderly mother of Tess’s friend who also elected not to leave town. Cora becomes increasingly traumatized by the events of the flood and is unable to convey what happened. Del arrives from New York and tries to help her sister recover. One thing I admire about this book is way the author unwinds the complex plot. Important pieces of information come to light in a plausible way, the way the flood slowly overwhelmed the city.

The end of the marriage of the old-money white Tess and the Creole Joe is well described:  “Tess wanted to make everything about responsibility, about trust. She believed that what separated them was thin and movable but it was more like a barrier of bulletproof glass. The truth was she had her world, he had his, and their words came to each other muffled and distorted by what stood between.”

It was fun to see a reference to the amazing Lafcadio Hearn in a casual conversation Tess had in a bar with a stranger. Hearn was quoted as saying he’d rather be in New Orleans in sackcloth and ashes than own the whole state of Ohio. According to Wikipedia though he only lived in the city for ten years, some credit him with inventing the image of New Orleans as distinctive, having European or Caribbean culture.

This is an exceptional book for so many reasons.

C. Babst Morgan, The Floating World, Algonquin Books, 2017, 384 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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