BABYLON ROLLINGby Amanda Boyden (Knopf), 307 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NN
Amanda Boyden knows how to keep a narrative moving, but her quintet of New Orleans voices doesn't quite harmonize.
Five families living on one street in the Big Easy connect and conflict in 2004 just as Hurricane Ivan gets set to slam into the city. Ariel May and her husband, Ed, are adjusting to their recent relocation from Minnestoa. The Guptas have moved into one of the biggest houses on the street. Philomena doesn't like that much and has a prick of a dying husband to deal with. Fifteen-year-old Daniel, aka Fearius, is too interested in guns. Seventy-year-old Cerise watches it all from her front porch, hoping for the best.
The terrific potential here winds up fizzling. One problem is that the voices aren't really balanced. The Guptas, East Indian immigrants, get less attention than the others and come across as more observed than fully realized.
The characters do go through major changes. Ariel has an affair, elitist Philomena starts catering food to the dive-like tavern across the street, Ed would rather drink there - but the impending natural disaster, supposedly the glue that holds it all together, isn't the catalyst for cohesion that it should be.
And I'm surprised that Boyden hasn't taken more heat from critics - who, for the most part, have raved about the book - for her black characters. Cerise, the wise black female elder who epitomizes forbearance, borders on cliché. And the black boy next door who may possibly go really bad crosses that border right into stereotype.