Elise Blackwell’s ‘The Lower Quarter’

by Rebecca Davis

Elise Blackwell’s fifth novel The Lower Quarter deals in art, which is apt because the novel itself is artful. Told through four interwoven points-of view, set against the backdrop of Katrina-ravaged New Orleans and exploring mystery and noir roots, this tale could easily tip towards melodrama. But that is where the artfulness of the work itself rests—in the telling, in the careful control of details, in the finely wrought characters.

The blurb on the back of the novel makes the book sound like it is going to be wild ride through a fast-paced mystery. In some ways, that expectation is fulfilled. The book begins with Johanna, a woman with a painful past, reopening her art restoration shop after Katrina. While Johanna is returning to a bit of normalcy by getting lunch at her usual spot, she notices a newspaper story about a body found in the nearby Hotel Richelieu. There is also a mention of a lost painting—that bit becomes extremely important. Eli, fresh from jail, is on the case to find the painting. But Eli is not the typical hardnosed noir detective, but rather has a wrought background himself. Clay, whose brutal nature seems unforgivable, is tied up in Johanna’s past, the painting, and the recent murder, and he also pulls in Marion, a young woman struggling financially and emotionally. To speak anymore of the characters or the plot would spoil the story. All that should be said—aside from the fact that you should pick it up yourself—is that the novel is much deeper and purposeful than even the term “literary mystery” would suggest.

Reading this book is like studying a painting. When we carefully consider a work of art we notice that every stroke is in its place. Some may be broader than others, sweeping and overarching—seemingly out of control. But in the hands of a skilled artist, every aspect is tempered. In a masterpiece, each color is the ideal hue to convey the precise emotion the viewer needs to feel. Elise Blackwell, throughout The Lower Quarter, exhibits the prowess of a true painter. Through focused details, Blackwell expertly paints the image of New Orleans, the Lower Quarter especially, as a place that has been destroyed, but is returning to life, slowly and perhaps painfully. The landscape becomes something that breathes, as real as any living thing to the reader. The characters, each created with a deft hand, are much the same as the place, looking back, finding themselves, and figuring their paths forward. These paths become as tangible to the reader as if they were real people.

The four characters are not to be outshone by the power of the landscape. From the fragile yet fierce females, Johanna and Marion, to the compassionate Eli, and the cold yet ultimately sympathetic Clay, each character moves and reaches a reader in different yet compelling ways. Each reader will find themselves drawn to different characters for their own reasons. Some may find bit and pieces of themselves within the complicated and troubled psyches. Others may bond because of similar experiences with loss or suffering. But I feel that nearly every reader will find the characters fascinating because they are discovering something new from each one of them. A reader of The Lower Quarter will learn things they never thought they would want to: from how to revive a waterlogged painting to the cost of human leather.

As with any great work of art, this book will teach you. Certainly, you will learn about New Orleans history and geography, about art and its underbelly, about many things. But you will also learn about people, the human condition, and what we do to continue living, to move on, and to repent.