When families face disasters, the stress can reveal the strength of their bonds — or the weaknesses.
Families under life-altering stress are the subjects of two impressive debut novels: C. Morgan Babst's The Floating World and Melanie Hobson's Summer Cannibals.
Babst is a New Orleans native, and her deep knowledge of that unique city is the beating heart of her first novel, which is set in the aftermath of the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.
The novel's main characters are the members of the Boisdore family. Father Joe is an artist, mother Tess a psychologist. They have two daughters, both in their 20s: fiercely independent Del, who has moved to New York to work in the art world, and Cora, whose emotional fragility has kept her dependent on her parents, although she has her own home in New Orleans.
The Boisdores' family tree — Joe's side black, Tess' white — reflects much of the city's complex racial and social history. Their present is all about what Katrina has wrought, as Joe thinks:
"Damage was normal now: The bathtub ring around the city, the misplaced houses and overturned cars. Their home on Esplanade wallpapered in mold, a magnolia tree in the kitchen, his unfinished sculptures of dogs and children hanging in the dying branches. Their furniture all crammed into the Dobies' house, their boxes in the storage barn. He and Tess were not speaking to each other, and Cora was not speaking at all. The thoroughness of the destruction almost kept you from remembering what had been destroyed."
His family teeters on the edge of disintegration not just because their lovingly restored house is perhaps irreparably damaged but because of what happened to them during the hurricane. In the chaos, Tess and Joe were unable to find Cora and had to evacuate to Houston without her. When they do find her, they learn she had been out during the storm with a friend in a small boat, trying to rescue people. As the novel begins, almost two months after Katrina's landfall, Cora is still so traumatized she barely speaks or eats; she sleepwalks out into the city and comes home plastered with mud.
She's living with Tess near their ruined house, while Joe is staying in a family cabin in the countryside with his father, Vincent, a highly skilled cabinetmaker now struck by dementia. Del, who was already somewhat estranged from her parents, returns from New York to find everything she remembers changed.
Babst effectively evokes the sense of unreality and powerlessness of survivors in a ruined city. She combines powerful imagery, a complex but well-crafted plot and deeply engaging characters to convey the enduring and sometimes surprising impact of a disaster like Katrina.
Hobson, who earned her Ph.D. from Florida State University, was born in New Zealand and raised in Canada, where her novel Summer Cannibals is set. The Blackford family, too, is facing possible disaster. Their crisis is much smaller in scale than a hurricane but nevertheless reveals some of the family's darkest secrets.
David and Margaret Blackford live in somewhat fading splendor in a mansion atop a cliff overlooking Lake Ontario and the city of Hamilton. He's a doctor, although the money in the family is from her side. Margaret runs the house and, in secret, practices the art David made her abandon long ago, creating endless collages in one of the mansion's labyrinth of rooms.
They have three adult daughters, whose boyish names — Georgina, Jacqueline and Philippa — reflect David's bitterly unsatisfied wish for a son. Georgie, an art historian bored with academia, lives nearby, while Jax has made it as far as Florida, where her marriage is stagnating.
Pippa, the youngest, has fled as far as geographically possible, living in New Zealand with her husband and four young sons. She's very pregnant with a fifth child, and — in the book's precipitating crisis — has abruptly announced she's flying back to Canada.
Margaret calls her other daughters home to help her cope with Pippa and with a public tour of the home's 5-acre garden that David is obsessed and excited over, a tour that will turn into one of the plot's several disasters.
Pippa arrives grubby, withdrawn and emotionally wrecked, drawing complicated (and not entirely sympathetic) reactions from the other family members. She's aware of the irony of her return, having moved around the world to start a new life away from her parents' self-absorbed, careless parenting style: "She'd set out to construct a utopia of wonder and amazement, populated by little foot soldiers of joy who would go out into the world and cast that joy around — a storybook on homemade paper, written in vegetable dyes and drawn with love, where the words were symbols so anyone could understand. ... But what she'd gotten were junkyard dogs. Scrappy animals. A howling mess."
She doesn't exactly find a perfect haven in the old family home. On the brink of delivering her baby, Pippa disappears into a raging storm.
Summer Cannibals is sharply observed, its realism contrasted with gothic, even surreal touches. Hobson tells her tale of a family coming together and apart with psychological insight and acerbic wit, a combination that recalls some of the toxic families in novels by Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates. Readers might not love the Blackfords, but they'll find it hard to look away from their bad behavior.
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.