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Katrina's Interruption Stymies a Novel's Greatness

by Veronique de Turenne
May 2, 2007 (Day to Day)

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Elise Blackwell takes a gamble with her fine new novel, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish. She filters the story in flashbacks, through the creaky memory of Louis Proby.

Louis is 95 when we meet him, but the heart of the story unfolds decades before, in the summer he turned 17. In that year, the Mississippi River rose to record levels, flooded six states and changed Louis' life forever.

We meet Louis on a sultry August night in 2005. He watches through the window of his New Orleans study as Hurricane Katrina looms over the city and makes landfall. But what Louis sees is his long-vanished boyhood home in rural Cypress Parish.

It's the strange, rain-soaked spring of '27, and the Mississippi has never run so fast or so strong.

Here's young Louis, a budding naturalist, trying for clear-eyed observation but flirting with terror:

"Never before had I felt the levee shimmy under me as I did then. I had twice seen unmoored cows sucked down into the mysterious darkness of the river, but never had I seen a whirlpool so large as the one that now churned before me. It was a cauldron capable of making not only a heifer but a large house, or perhaps even something more, disappear from human sight."

As the river rises, Louis' life falls apart. He loses his heart — and his virginity — to a beautiful French girl who doesn't quite love him back. And he learns the bitter lesson that his father, a heroic figure in Cypress Parish, is merely a man. A chauffeur job puts Louis among the influence peddlers who really run the city. He's right there when, in a single conversation, the men decide to blow up the levees of Cypress Parish. Sure, it'll flood an entire county, but it'll keep their interests safe.

Blackwell's writing is lovely — just gorgeous at times — but the flashbacks get in her way. The decades between 95-year-old Louis and his youth have an undertow of their own. They create drag and distance and they mute the emotion.

The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish was in manuscript form when Hurricane Katrina hit, so Blackwell did a rewrite to include it. It's a shame that the chilling parallels between Katrina's ugly aftermath and the Great Flood of Louis' youth go unexamined.

Hurricane Katrina forced herself part of the way into The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish. Had the storm been allowed to blow all the way through, Blackwell's very good book might have been great.

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