Soon, more immediate dilemmas arise as Boisdoré family dysfunction takes center stage. Joe Boisdoré, a sculptor descended from a family of prominent African American artisans, and his wife Tess, a psychiatrist from a wealthy white family, retreated to Houston before the storm. Their marriage unraveling, they officially separated after returning to New Orleans. Fifty-two days after landfall, their 20-something daughter Del is about to fly down from New York, where she’s lived for several years. This will be the first time she’s seen her family and her native city since both have been profoundly altered.
Cora, her older sister, insisted on waiting out the storm at home, though her parents came back to retrieve her before Hurricane Rita several weeks later. She’s now staying with Tess in a house on loan from still absent neighbors, its rooms crowded with the salvaged remains of the storm-ravaged Boisdoré home. The novel itself is, by this point, crowded too; Babst’s affinity for detail can overwhelm, even when—as in the description of a room jammed with antique furniture—clutter seems called for.
If Cora knows the bloodied woman or the cause of her death, she won’t say. Since returning from Houston, we learn, she’s turned inward as a result of some unspeakable trauma. She wakes up each morning with dark circles under her eyes and mud on her feet. She barely speaks, though she repeatedly tells her mother that she can’t eat, that drugs wouldn’t do any good. “I’m sorry, but it just goes right through me,” she repeats, as if in a daze. Cora’s emotional turmoil, it seems, has a complicated history that long predates the storm. Her family is terrified of triggering an even more severe loss of control, and her parents and sister point fingers over their role in reducing her to this ghost. Their choices—to let her stay behind, to delay in searching for her afterwards—were, they think, crucial.
Babst has set many dramas in motion. Bit players and backstories abound, and minor plot twists are too numerous to count. Joe and Tess are, themselves, so preoccupied they forget to pick Del up from the airport. “Cora does look like hell,” Del admits to her mother, when Tess tries to apologize. “And you’ve got me sleeping on a shitty sofa bed in a firetrap,” she adds, sarcastically. “But everything’s fine, sure.” The Boisdorés, as we encounter them, can barely look out for themselves, let alone one another, but they’re too busy being concerned about Cora to recognize their own blindness.
Cora’s singular presence makes a lasting impression. Her enigmatic silence, her fragmented memories of the storm and the shotgun, reach a striking climax in the novel’s middle section, which is an evocation of the storm itself told in the third person from Cora’s perspective. Far from being a victim, Cora emerges here as an agent. She is scared but resolute, selfless to a fault as she ventures into the floodwaters to rescue the stranded and find the missing.