Review of The Lower Quarter by Elise Blackwell. Ladkwood, CO: Unbridled Books, 2015.
The Lower Quarter is a not-quite mystery, not-quite noir, set in post-Katrina New Orleans, that brings together four main characters who are involved in one way or another in the search for a missing painting. Crime is at the center of The Lower Quarter, not just the plot-driving disappearance of the painting, but crime in the characters’ backgrounds, crime in their relations with each other, and crime in the larger sense, as appropriation and the illegitimate use of power.
The two main female characters – Johanna and Marion, an art restorer and an artist – are little more than acquaintances in the novel, although they take actions that profoundly impact each other’s lives. Of the two male characters, Clay is a scion of Old New Orleans, while Eli is a first-time visitor sent by his employer to find the painting. But someone else, also a recent arrival apparently in search of the painting, has turned up dead in a hotel room, giving urgency to the search that propels the characters into risky choices as they seek to achieve their desires.
Although the search for the painting moves the story forward, it’s not the ultimate focal point of the novel. What’s really at work here is the relations between the people, and how each of them slowly moves from a position of stasis – emotional, financial, or physical – to a moment of clarity or understanding. The characters drive this story, not the mystery.
The particulars of the city are well drawn but not overplayed. At one point, Marion, who among other pick-up trades works as a waitress in a bar, reflects upon her surroundings:
High on the wall behind her, above the mirror that reflected a thousand bottles back to those who would drink them, hung license plates from every state—most of them quite old, but a few (Hawaii, South Dakota, and for some reason the relatively proximate Alabama) were newer. When she’d first started working at the bar, Marion had assumed the plates were some sort of tribute to tourists from every state who had set foot in the bar. Now she thought of them as representing not so much those who passed through but those who came and stayed. Despite claiming tourism as its main trade, the Lower Quarter was a place where you could become a local faster than in most places.
It’s refreshing to read about a New Orleans that is not over-Gothicized and characters who are not rendered into conventional New Orleans types. A few of those characters exist in The Lower Quarter, but they are secondary characters using the conventional types for concealment of their true selves. So even the stereotypical New Orleanians aren’t really stereotypical. While it’s common to hear New Orleans described as a “character” in many books or films, the city itself is not so much a character here as a well and thoroughly drawn setting. And that’s enough.
Two of the characters engage in a sadomasochistic relationship that I didn’t think was convincing or sufficiently motivated. Other than that element, the characters are finely drawn, each with strengths and failings that make them recognizable and human.
Those who experienced the disasters of Katrina will find this novel a welcome venture into a post-Katrina city in which the hurricane is a formative, but not all-powerful, event, a novel that uses Katrina but does not obsess over it. Those who only witnessed those disasters from afar will find it a valuable addition to their shelves, a novel that starts in the familiar territory of crime and lust in lower-end New Orleans but moves from there into a memorable exploration of character.
Reviewed by Steve Wiegenstein
Steve Wiegenstein is the author of SLANT OF LIGHT and THIS OLD WORLD. He is a professor of English and Director of Graduate Studies at Columbia College.