Friday, April 08, 2011

Reader's Diary #700- Amanda Boyden: Babylon Rolling

Whenever I plan to travel to a place, I try to read some of the local authors beforehand. I knew Canada's own Joseph Boyden lived in New Orleans, so when I planned my March break there, I thought I'd finally break down and read Through Black Spruce (it's been sitting unread on my shelf for far too long). However, when I found that his wife Amanda had written a book actually about New Orleans it was too much of an opportunity to pass up. That I could download a copy to my Sony eReader and take it on the long flight south sealed the deal. (More of my thought on eReading in the weeks to come.)

What a fantastic book-- easily my favourite read so far this year. Like Josh Neufeld's A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge, Babylon Rolling doesn't settle for just one or two main characters. Though after visiting the city, I can begin to understand why. Personalities there are strong and varied to say the least. From
Ariel May and her husband, Ed, have just moved to New Orleans with their two small children. Their neighbor, Fearius, is a fifteen-year-old just out of juvenile detention. Across the street, an elderly couple, the Browns, are only trying to pass their days in peace, while Philomenia Beauregard de Bruges, a longtime resident and “Uptown lady,” peers through her curtains at the East Indian family next door.With one random accident, a scene of horror across front lawns, the whole neighborhood converges on the sidewalk and the residents of Orchid Street are thrown together, for better and for worse.
Interestingly, after reading many other reviews there doesn't seem to be a consensus on who exactly the main character was. One reviewer argues that Fearius was the main character. While I think Fearius had one of the strongest, riskiest, and most unique voices, I found Ed to be the most compelling. But cases could also be made, and have been, for Ariel, Philomenia, or Mrs. Brown. The only ones I thought should have gotten a little more focus was the Indian couple, but you can't have it all I suppose.

Babylon Rolling takes place pre-Katrina. Hurricane Ivan threatens to materialize and while even the mere threat shapes the course of the novel, the natural disasters are nothing compared to the personal dramas unfolding. Everyone's story seems to come together to form their own hurricane of sorts. Katrina, Schmatrina.

What I liked most about Boyden's writing was her unbelievable knack of capturing human motivation. At first I found myself trying to decide which characters she was showing sympathetically and which she was picking on. But before long I realized that the only real biases were my own. Boyden's characters were so rich, complex, and believable that she didn't need to judge them. That dirty work was left up to me, the reader.

Babylon Rolling is an intense drama, witty, insightful, beautiful and ugly. I can't wait to read more of her work.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

I'm trying to think of other novels that don't have a single central character and I cannot think of any offhand. I imagine that would add to the feel of the novel as a story about a particular neighbourhood.

John Mutford said...

Barbara: I've read a few and more often than not, I've found them somewhat confusing and would have preferred many characters being culled. Not so with Babylon Rolling.

Wanda said...

Some of my most memorable reads have been both beautiful and ugly and though a multitude of characters can be a bit overwhelming, this one sounds too good to pass up.

Teddy Rose said...

This book has been on my TBR since 2008. Now I want to read it even more! Thanks for your fab review.