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HELL OR HIGH WATER by Joy Castro: Book Review

In 2008, the city of New Orleans was still reeling from the hurricane that had savaged it three years before. Homes and businesses were devastated, especially in the poorest districts, most particularly the Ninth Ward.  Nola Cespedes, a new reporter on the Times-Picayune, is all too familiar with the problems that the city had faced even before the storm hit.

Brought up by a single mother who emigrated from Cuba and earned her living cleaning the homes of rich white people, Nola has lifted herself out of childhood poverty on the strength of her brains and her mother’s love and belief in her.  But Nola has hidden her past even from her three closest friends, and, it turns out, even from herself.

Nola’s opportunity to break out of the Living and Lagniappe section of the newspaper comes when she’s given an assignment to interview men convicted of sexual crimes.  Over eight hundred men are on the streets of the city–rapists, child molesters, sexual perverts–and Nola’s editor wants her to follow up. She doesn’t want the story, but she has no choice.  And the subject becomes unfortunately current when a young woman is abducted in broad daylight, as was another woman in the city who was found raped and killed.

After reviewing the files of dozens of convicted abusers, Nola decides to interview five of them, although in the end only four of them agree to meet her.  With her stomach churning, Nola tries to find out what makes one man rape and cut, another beat his victims before raping them, a church pastor abuse thirty-two of his parishioners, an elementary school principal rape his female students, and a wealthy New Orleans resident of impeccable heritage force himself on his household help.

In addition, Nola decides to speak to several of the victims of abuse and tell their stories to the paper’s readers.

Outside of work, there’s a lot going on in Nola’s private life.  She meets weekly for dinner with her three closest friends.  But in Nola’s mind, each one of them has things she doesn’t have and has never had–a fiancee, wealthy parents, a homeland she can return to.  Nola believes that if her friends knew the truth about her–her poverty-stricken past, her budget-crunching present–they would pity her, and with that she cannot and will not deal.  So she goes along, pretending. As she puts it to herself, “You silence the parts of yourself that point out how privileged they are, or else they make you feel sordid, small, ashamed.”

Joy Castro has written a fascinating novel about the sexual abuse that is sadly a too-common story. The feeling that no one can be trusted–not clergy or teachers or family members–is all too real in today’s word, just as it is in Hell or High Water.  The author brings that reality home to her readers skillfully, but she also tells the story of a young woman trying to face down her fears and anxieties while continuing with her own life.  The characters in this novel are realistic and compelling.  Some are charming, whom you would like for friends; others are depraved, whom you hope you would never encounter.

You can read more about Joy Castro at her web site.

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