Joy Castro’s new novel, Hell or High Water (Thomas Dunne Books) is a gritty and suspenseful thriller set in post-Katrina New Orleans—damaged yet unbeaten— and told through the eyes of crime reporter Nola Soledad Céspedes. She is the story as much as she writes the story, as Nola investigates the scary underworld of sex offenders, their many victims, and what if any possibility exists for understanding of and redemption for her tortured past.
Nola is a feisty and savvy 27-year-old reporter for the Times-Picayune, trying to make the leap to serious reporting as she simultaneously struggles to reveal and hide herself to her successful girlfriends. They don’t know she grew up in the dangerous Desire Projects or that she was fatherless as a child. Nola’s Cuban mother was often drunk even as Mama created “an island of love” amid the muck. Nola and her mother have also kept many astonishing secrets from each other.
The plot is driven by the abduction of Amber Waybridge, a young tourist who disappears in the shadowy corridors of a restaurant in the French Quarter. Nola interviews sex offenders about their evil habits and rehabilitation, if any, and empathizes with their victims and the lifelong destruction left behind. Some of the most suspenseful moments in the novel occur when Nola encounters rich sex offenders as well as poor ones in their own homes. Issues of class and race transect Nola’s observations about who gets rehabilitation and who does not and the elision of inconvenient history among the well-to-do. How will Waybridge’s abduction, Nola’s research and newspaper writing, and her history all come together in the end? For the many sticky situations along the way, Nola packs a Berretta in her handbag.
In Nola Céspedes, Castro has created a character defined by a strong voice, trenchant societal observations, and solitude, as her middle name suggests, Soledad. What Nola must accomplish she must do so according to her agenda, what she must overcome she must do so alone, and what external and internal demons she must conquer she must do so head-on. What humanizes Nola in the end is that she recognizes what she wants yet what she lacks. She is courageous enough to change and act to overcome the real and psychic injustices the world has flung her way.
Hell or High Water is a tightly written thriller where Nola’s first-person perspective and her witty, often cutting dialogue will make the reader believe in the character, and really, care for Nola and what happens to her. You want to talk to her, you want her to succeed, and even when she is making mistakes you are rooting for her to escape her predicament and survive and defeat her enemies. Like the city for which she was named, Nola is damaged yet unbeaten.
The novel’s twist at the end reveals that Nola’s primary quest is to heal her own soul. But to achieve that, like many of us who may have begun with less than nothing and wounds too deep to easily heal, Nola may have to act beyond the boundaries of morality. Hell or High Water is an exciting, incisive novel.
(This book review originally appeared in the El Paso Times on September 30, 2012.)