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The Lower Quarter: A Novel Paperback – September 21, 2015
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"In this novel, Blackwell has created a vibrant amalgamation of mystery, classic noir, erotica, and ekphrasis.... An artful, gritty love story, eulogy, and survivor narrative for the city of New Orleans post-Katrina."
-- Kirkus (starred review)
"A restrained and lovely work, admirably resistant to melodrama, punctuated by moments of sublime insight."
"The novel is a compelling blend of character and setting, without either overwhelming the other. Fans of literary mysteries should love The Lower Quarter."
--New York Journal of Books
"The Lower Quarter is a riveting narrative about crime, art, violence and renewal in a city that embodies all four."
"The authenticity of Blackwell's New Orleans experience is clear on every page, from the bars the characters frequent to the sense of a city rebuilding itself ... will grip readers and keep them turning pages."
The novel's greatest strength is how it imbues both the loftiest and the seediest moments with grandeur and pathos without being overwrought or overwritten. An artful, gritty love story, eulogy, and survivor narrative for the city of New Orleans post-Katrina.” - Starred Kirkus Review
A deft and vivid portrait of post-Katrina New Orleans, The Lower Quarter flirts along the edges of noir, gets its feet wet, and then returns to offer us the satisfactions of vivid characters complexly and convincingly drawn. This book is about what happens if you pay attention to the real story instead of just reading the tabloid headlines.” Brian Evenson
In Elise Blackwell's new novel The Lower Quarter, place comes alive as it all too rarely seems to in fiction or for that matter any other genre. Every time I put the book down for a few minutes, I had to look around and get my bearings, because I'd been in another world. The characters here are every bit as real as their environment, and I became absorbed in their lives. My admiration for this beguiling book and its talented author is unqualified.” Steve Yarbrough
The Lower Quarter is a beautifully written book. Elise Blackwell’s work has always been intelligent, nuanced, and finely wrought, but The Lower Quarter is her best novel yet: a mesmerizing story of art, resilience, and life after catastrophe.” Emily St. John Mandel
The Lower Quarter is noir at its noirest best: dark, fast-paced, sexily exciting, and beautifully written. Pick it up and I dare you to try putting it down.” Benjamin Black (John Banville)
A bedazzling southern noir set in post-Katrina New Orleans, The Lower Quarter catches us up in the tangled paths of four individuals, each haunted by a brutal past. While expertly unraveling her characters’ intertwining stories, Elise Blackwell in her highly atmospheric new novel powerfully conveys the endlessly destructive legacy of violence and the redemptive beauty of art.” Jenny McPhee
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Top Customer Reviews
Like a lot of noir (or noirish) stories, it starts with people damaged by how their lives have gone up to now. Johanna is an art restorer who accounts for her life in terms of “before Belgium” and “after Belgium” — what actually happened in Belgium and really drives the story is revealed over time. Clay orbits Johanna in a vaguely defined relationship that began in that Belgium time. He’s the son of a wealthy New Orleans man, also caught up in the Belgium story and contributing to the backdrop of general moral questionability. Eli, an ex-con who doesn’t fit ex-con stereotypes, has been hired to retrieve a painting apparently stolen during a murder involving one of the core figures from Johanna’s past.
The story is tethered to Johanna — she’s looking for a painting apparently stolen during a murder in New Orleans during Katrina. The murder victim is a former tormentor from her time in Belgium. But it’s still another figure — unseen, but behind the events of Belgium and behind the painting — who she needs to right herself with before she can have a life, and before the orbits of those around her can stabilize, if ever.
Eli is the catalyst of the story. Once he’s sent to New Orleans to retrieve the painting (he works for an organization called the Lost Art Registry), things start to flow. The New Orleans police are not actively investigating the murder, or the stolen painting — they have enough on their hands post-Katrina. Eli is not only motivated by the job he’s been hired to do. He falls in love with Johanna, and he’s going to do what he can to help her set her life right while also protecting her.
Clay likewise loves Johanna, in his way. He helped her escape Belgium, and he seems to carry an obligation that won’t let go.
If it sounds complicated, it is, a little bit. But as it unfolds, and you learn about these relationships and connections, that’s the beauty of the story. And it does have a resolution.
Although the story has some classic noir elements, the action and the dialogue don’t fall into noir stereotypes. Eli is the closest thing to a private detective, and he’s not really. There are no thugs or reform school graduates, just people with messed up lives in a city that just went through the king of all messups.
Like I said, the story has a resolution. With noir stories, I’m always curious to ask whether the resolution is “just.” Do things come together at the end for the characters as they should, in a just world? And what if they don’t? It’s always the tattered edges of the resolution that are the most interesting. True here as well.
I should add that the setting of the story in New Orleans has a kind of neutral presence in the story. If you were looking for a strong "New Orleans" flavor, you don't really get that here. I don't know that that is a real criticism, but New Orleans has such a strong personality as a city that you often expect it to be a character in itself. But its presence here is more subtle.
I won’t give a plot summary here of The Lower Quarter – you can read that above – but I will tell you that if you are reading this review and are considering buying the book, do yourself a favor and don’t hesitate. Buy it, read it, then buy and read her others. You are on the cusp of receiving a wonderful gift. Your older brother has just brought home an album by this British band called Led Zeppelin. Your mother is trying to convince you to try cheesecake. Your father is offering you a sip of a sour-smelling drink called beer.
The story takes place in New Orleans right after Katrina, and is about a missing painting, a dead man found in a hotel room just days before Katrina hits, a woman who restores damaged paintings, an art investigator hired to find the missing painting, the son of a well to do New Orleans family, wth very dark tastes and desires, and a woman who helps him achieve those desires. The 4 characters are
1. Johanna, who has a dark past in Belgium but now restores paintings in New Orleans.
2. Clay, a man from both Johanna's past and currently also in New Orleans. Clay is a sadist you enjoys torturing people online, whom he feels has done him wrong, but also a sadist in his sexual relationships.
3. Eli, the art investigator hired to find the missing paining, who has the job as a result of his colorful past, and who set his sights and desires on Johanna.
4. Marion who is a bartender, artist, and massage therapist who also helps Clay with his sadistic needs sexually, though these scenes are again mostly hinted at. The bar she works at is across the street from where Johanna, lives and works.
This is not a bad book at all, it is just very slow to reveal, what is really going on, uses far too many hints rather than coming right out and saying something, and again oddly doesn't develop most of the characters in a way that allows the reader to bond to any of them.