The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish by Elise Blackwell

The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish by Elise Blackwell

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover, 210 pages, 2007

Rating: 10/10

Reason for Reading: The title drew me in.

Synopsis: Louis Proby is a 90-year-old man when he hears that Hurricane Katrina is on the way, but his mind isn’t on the upcoming events – it’s on the great floods of 1927 that happened in Louisiana when he was in his late teens. Looking back on the weeks before the floods, he tries to piece together the events and interactions that pushed him into becoming a man as the river threatened to destroy everything he loved – and not necessarily the type of man he thought he would be.

Why you should read this book: Feeling so safe in our 21st-century homes, it can be hard to remember that we’re as much at the mercy of nature as we were 80 years ago, but Cypress Parish is a poignant reminder that we can’t control everything – just how we react to things. As the waters of the Mississippi rise in distant-but-ever-closer areas, so too rises the pressure on Louis, who finds himself confronted with decisions that may outstrip his burgeoning maturity. Everything is at risk – family, love, a possible life of high status – and Blackwell does a magnificently subtle job letting the reader know about brewing troubles while Louis remains largely in the dark thanks to the self-centeredness of his lingering youth. Louis’ father also plays an excellent role in the story with his mixture of roughness and hope for his children, acting alternately as a role model and a warning sign for Louis. The descriptions of nature act as a poignant extension of Louis’ story, both in its beauty and its savagery, highlighting how Louis grapples with morality as the pressures of adulthood fall onto his shoulders. The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish will draw you in with all the power of the roaring Mississippi River, tossing your heart about until it finally releases you on the last page – but the memory of this absorbing read will hold on to you long after you’re done.

Why you should avoid this book: If you’re reluctant to read Cypress Parish because of the Hurricane Katrina connection, rest assured that any politics and blame is kept strictly to the historical story of 1927 – the duality of the floods rests more in man’s inability to control the mighty Mississippi despite convincing ourselves otherwise. In fact, if anything, Blackwell could have pushed her characters even further if she had wanted to do so.

Opening paragraph:

I am a man far removed from his origins – by miles, by years, and by more intangible measures. Every piece of wood, no matter how refined and sanded, is marked by the conditions where the tree was grown. The mix of nutrients in the soil and air, the shifts in temperature and humidity, high winds and lightning, the damage from insects and wood-boring birds, and cultivation – the human history of the land – leave their evidence. Who I am remains intimately gnarled with where I came from. And where I came from is the place making the news, the place in the line of fire, soon to be the eye of the storm. Though I’ve pruned from my speech all traces of accent, I’m from south of south. I am from Cypress Parish, Louisiana.

Fabulous quotes:

‘People are mightily worried about the rain, and I’ll tell you this, the newspapers down here aren’t reporting half of what’s starting to happen upriver. So far it’s just backwater flooding, but mark my words, the river’s coming and no one’s ever going to forget it.’
‘I suppose there’s nothing just about backwater flooding if you live on backwater,’ my mother said softly.

With its marble foyer and faux-Roman statues and white-jacketed waiters, the club was even finer than the first one Charles had taken me to.
‘It’s the second best in town,’ he stated as though it were an agreed-upon fact. ‘Only the Louisiana Club is more elite, and you cannot bring a guest into it. When Theodore Roosevelt came to New Orleans in the middle of that yellow fever outbreak, I tell you he was a hero in this city. A god, even. Women were falling at his feet, and the most important men in town were falling over each other like fools to get a meeting with him. But even he couldn’t get into the Louisiana Club for lunch until they made him a member. No outsiders allowed, not even presidents. But I’ll tell you a secret, Louis: the food’s much better here.’
Wearing half-borrowed clothes but my own pants, I tasted the first champagne of my life. As I grew accustomed to its fizz and its clean, mineral taste, I listened to men possessed of wealth and its power discuss the future of the largest city I’d seen.

Also recommended: Fifth Business by Robertson Davies; In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje; The Night Watch by Sarah Waters; A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry.

Also by this author: Hunger.

Fun tidbit: According to Blackwell: ‘I drafted the novel before Hurricane Katrina and found the parallels unsurprising but chilling. I had to revise the novel to be read in a post-Katrina world. This still spooks me.’

Would I read more by this author? I would definitely track down Hunger and any novels Blackwell writes in the future.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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