Amanda Boyden has written an enormously affecting novel about Hurricane Katrina in which the storm itself doesn't even play a role: Babylon Rolling is set in the year before Katrina, along one neighborhood block in the ever-changing city. Were it not bracketed by an epilogue and a prologue acknowledging Katrina—and, of course, if it were possible for any reader to think about contemporary New Orleans without thinking about that storm—the book would read as a nuanced description of a neighborhood, an attempt to chart a microcosm of a city in which families of radically different backgrounds and worldviews collide. The knowledge of Katrina's imminence, though, makes for a different reading experience altogether: The book is colored with the awareness that all of the characters' efforts, their attempts at taking care of their kids and making new friends and preserving their jobs and marriages, are soon going to be utterly undone.
The book focuses on five families, neighbors on a block of Orchid Street. Boyden shifts voices as she shifts perspectives, from Philomenia Beauregard de Bruges, a longtime resident as prim and uptight as her name would suggest, to a liberal Minnesota family struggling to reconcile their leftist ideals with the realities of their new home, to Fearius, a black teenager trying to make it as a drug dealer. (Fearius' voice is the only one that rings hollow: The tonal shifts between the other characters are subtle, while Fearius' segments are written in a gangsta-speak that seems forced in comparison.) The neighbors interact in ways occasionally friendly and occasionally hostile, coming together in emergencies, always aware of their neighbors while not always understanding them.
Poignantly, much of the book is devoted to chronicling preparations for Hurricane Ivan, which was expected to touch down in New Orleans in the fall of 2004. Some characters evacuate, stuck on clogged freeways for hours; many more stay, some to party, some to tend to work or family. And that hurricane, of course, never delivers—the real storm is still to come: "We love a place that cannot be saved by levees. We are brilliant losers. But, of course, those of us living Uptown on Orchid Street do not know this yet. Katrina is a year away."