Babylon Rolling By Amanda Boyden
This is going to be the year that Amanda Boyden gets more attention for her new novel than the new novel by her husband, Joseph Boyden. This literary power couple hit the bestseller lists with Amanda’s Pretty Little Dirty and Joseph’s Three Day Road a couple of years ago. It was Three Day Road that became the “must read” and Joseph was the guy everyone wanted at the literary festivals. Babylon Rolling, the new novel by Amanda Boyden is going to put her in the spotlight this time. The introduction lets us know that this novel takes place in the days prior to Hurricane Katrina. The characters all live on Orchid Street in New Orleans, the city that Amanda and Joseph have made their own home.
We meet young Daniel, who has taken the street name Fearius. This is a world I do not know and I found myself intimidated and disturbed by it – by the brutality of the thoughts and life of this boy. The characters Ariel and Ed, their children Ella and Miles, and their neighbours Cerise and Roy then seduced me.
There is no doubt that Amanda Boyden can write, and with this novel she has composed a great big story about the lives of a very disparate group of people who interact because they are neighbours. They become involved in each other’s lives after an accident on their street at the beginning of the novel. There is tragedy and there is near tragedy and there is humour – it is all very human.
Ed is the stay at home Dad, raising his kids on political correctness and educational TV. Ed encourages Ariel to practice tolerance when she complains about the teenagers “of colour” and their behaviour on the streetcar. In a recent radio interview Amanda Boyden was asked how she was able to write so convincingly in the voice of the black youth; her response was that she just has to walk outside her door to her it all around her. She also mentioned how cosmopolitan – how European – she finds New Orleans with its mix of people of all colours – all mixed up together on one block.
Cerise and Roy have raised their only child and are enjoying their retirement, still very much in love. They have an optimistic attitude toward life including “they try not to let what they can’t control get them down. It’s a good life philosophy.” The events of the coming year will try them. I loved the character of the wise Cerise, who also observes “Good children can come up in bad houses, under bad parents, and bad kids can come up with parents good as saints. It hardly matters.” The voices of each character, as we follow the narration of each one, so different as they are, are all very true. There is retribution and forgiveness.
As the events of the lives of these characters progress so do the warnings of the approach of Hurricane Ivan. Some choose to evacuate and some choose to stay. The reader has the advantage of knowing that Hurricane Ivan was much less destructive than anticipated – and that Hurricane Katrina is going to be so much more.
I do believe that this is one of those really terrific books. The characters become real, the setting and the life of the city of New Orleans in the year before Katrina is fascinating, and the story is riveting. These are characters that live lives completely different from our own and yet Amanda Boyden has made them human. Somehow we empathize even with those with whom we would think we would find nothing in common. In addition to the rich use of language and perfect pitch narrative it was the compassion of the writer – and the reader – that made this novel exceptional. Congratulations Amanda Boyden.