Review #30: Hell or High Water by Joy Castro

I do not even know where to express my absolute love of this book. Joy Castro’s first fiction full length novel is successful beyond belief, along the lines of Dennis Lehane’s work. Set in 2008 New Orleans, Nola Céspedes is a reporter for the Times-Picayune in the “Life and Lagniappe” section writing fluff stories on local plantations. Nola is given her big break – to write a feature piece about the many sex offenders who went “off the grid” following Katrina. The city is also on the hunt for a young woman who went missing in the Quarter, presumed to be the victim of the same person who has killed two prostitutes. “As her research progresses, Nola is gradually drawn in to an underworld of violent predators–a world she struggles to keep separate from her middle-class professional life. Raised in poverty by a single mother in New Orleans’ notorious Desire Projects, Nola has her own secrets to hide.” — Taken from Castro’s website.

This story is unbelievably well-crafted, and makes excellent use of the city of New Orleans. I lived in New Orleans for seven years, including pre- and post-Katrina, and so much of Castro’s description of this beautiful city rang so true for me. She described the post-Katrina experience with such depth, love, and truth, that it brought tears to my eyes at points. Katrina is the greatest devastation the city has ever known, not only for the physical damage caused, but also for the racial, social, and political clashes that followed. To have lived in New Orleans during this time is truly life changing, and for those who never knew the city, they can truly never understand what happened there. I believe that Castro’s loving and honest words will help bring some of that understanding to those who did not go through Katrina.

“It’s impossible to have a social occasion here without discussing it. No matter what else you try to talk about, all conversational roads lead back to Katrina and our abandonment by the government. The crime, the hope, and then the long, slow defeat. Now, almost three years after it happened, you can walk through the Quarter without seeing any evidence that a hurricane blew through here. There are whole sections of the city that look just fine, all back to normal, like Katrina never even happened. But our shared awareness never fades. Our lives as New Orleanians were split into before and after, and that doesn’t go away. Even if no one mentions it by name, Katrina is always on the table.”

Aside from her wonderful treatment of post-Katrina New Orleans, Castro’s love and understanding of the city shines through in so many ways. I assume she is a Native New Orleanian because her use of the neighborhoods, the shops, the restaurants, the parks, the schools, the food, and every other aspect of the city is technically accurate and beautifully described. I learned so much about the history of the city, which Castro also crafts perfectly through Nola’s wry and somewhat cynical voice.

As for Nola herself. Holy moley. What an absolutely incredible character. Nola is so fully-realized that I could feel her presence as I read the book. She is first generation American, her mother coming from Cuba, and she loves her Cuban heritage even when she pretends to keep it at arm’s length. She was raised Catholic and attends church every Sunday with her mother, yet she is not sure if she believes. Nola was raised in the projects which she left behind as soon as she could for a better, middle-classed life, yet she finds herself constantly drawn back to the Ninth. She pretends, with her group of girl friends, that she IS middle-classed smiling and nodding during conversations about world travel or buying fountains or fancy frocks. She wants so badly to be something she is not, she wants to fit in, but she knows she is different and believes that if her friends knew about her life in the Ninth Ward that she would be rejected. So she puts on a mask and continues to pretend. Castro examination of growing up without privilege, without social capital, yet the desire to have more is raw and real.

“I guess if you want to move up in the world and be friends with upper-class people, that’s the price you pay. You silence the parts of yourself that point out how privileged they are, or else they make you feel sordid, small, ashamed.”

“Sometimes I’m no good at hanging out with my friends; I feel alien around them. I don’t long for a wedding; I don’t know it’s life to travel or have money, or even how it feels to have real family… When it comes to friendship, as with so many things, Im only passing, passing for normal, watching how my friends play and then doing my best to keep up.”

More importantly, she copes with all her conflicting emotions by drowning her emotions in drink and seeking sex from strangers. She is wickedly smart and brave, yet puts herself in so many risky situations that you wonder what the hell is wrong with her. In the end, it makes perfect sense why she behaves as she does, why she constantly puts her life and health at risk. Nola hates herself and hates the city, yet has no idea why. She strives to be good and to do well, but can’t quite reach there and doesn’t understand why she can’t just be normal. The book is told from her voice, and what a voice it is.

As for the storyline, it is also quite brilliant and based in truth. After Hurricane Katrina’s evacuation, many of the thousands of registered sex offenders never registered again and are “lost” to the system. Did they move to other states and start anew, or did they return to New Orleans “under the table?” We do not know this, but it’s a reality of one of the post-Katrina consequences. Castro takes a deft hand to the situation, discussing the psychological research about sex offenders and the consequeneces of their actions on their victims, while also putting it all in the context of the legal reality of sex offenders. For example, registered sex offenders include predators such as rapists or child molesters, but also male prostitutes, people who have urinated in public (under the indecent exposure rule), and those convicted of statutory rape (even those who were, for instance, 19 and had a consensual relationship with a 16 year old), yet they are all treated the same by society. They are all required to register, and many are shunned in society because we believe that all sex offenders are a danger to us and our children. She also presents the notion of “rehabilitation” and whether it is possible. It is fascinating reading and is woven into the story through Nola’s interviews with sex offenders, parents, and professionals in the field.

Again, I cannot express my absolute love and passion for this book. I will certainly keep it in my Kindle for reading again. This book is released in July and I cannot recommend it enough, especially for those who know and love New Orleans.

This is a netgalley book, so I got it pre-release. Excellent!