I am pleased to welcome to Air and Sea Stories, Sophie Jonas-Hill, whose pacy psychological thriller Nemesister was recently published by Urbane Publications. First off, a review of the book, followed by an interview with Sophie:
Review – Nemesister
Sophie Jonas-Hill’s novel is an incredibly atmospheric thriller that swings from eerie to brooding to intense as the central character negotiates a world full of confusion and threat.
The narrative opens as ‘Margarita’ – her real name or not? – finds herself arriving at a crumbling house in the bayou with a gunshot wound, a head injury and a memory full of holes. Those opening scenes are laden with oppressive ambience. You can feel the heat and humidity, and although the creaking, groaning house and the foetid swamp that surrounds it are realised strikingly, they could just as easily be ‘Margarita’s’ nightmare. In the house, she encounters the charismatic Red, an ex-soldier with speech you could cut with a knife, who might be an old-fashioned Southern gent just as easily as he might be a homicidal misogynist. Why have they come to this house in the middle of nowhere? Do they know each other? Who shot ‘Margarita’ and why – and are they still coming after her?
The following hours, trapped in the house, proceed through dreamlike scenes punctuated by fragmentary revelations and voices that could be memories, hallucinations, even clairvoyance. The broken cascade is sometimes confusing, but it’s best to just go with the flow – while it can be hard to follow the various threads at times, things will become clearer, if far from straightforward.
As the nature of the mystery is slowly revealed, a sometimes brutal story emerges. One of revenge, rescue and remorse, survivor’s guilt and the scars of abuse. But this is still a world where nothing and no-one are as they seem. It’s clear there is a significant deception underway, but who is deceiving whom? Whenever you think you have everything figured out, it twists on you again. As the story moves from the initial confusion of the amnesiac bayou to a web of con and counter-con, Nemesister will keep you guessing – and hooked – until the very end.
Interview, Sophie Jonas-Hill
-Sophie, welcome. There are a number of things that are striking about Nemesister – the eerie house in the bayou, the elusive nature of the main character’s identity, the switchback plot. Which of these elements came to you first when you started thinking about writing Nemesister, setting, character or plot? And how did the other elements fit in?
It was kind of a back and forth between both elements – the actual very first thing which came about was an image from a dream of a man, who later became Red, standing in the open door of a shack, and the sense of the dry wood under my feet. For some reason this was such a strong impression that I wrote a short story about it, which was a very limited thing about the girl waking up with no memory in the shack. I then went on to expand it – this is hard to write about with spoilers – but it had a more conventional ending. Then one the first edit, I had a ‘what if’ thought and tried out the twist idea – but of course none of that would have occurred to me had I not got to know the characters and realised things about them which lead me to think the central conceit was possible. I always find it’s like that, the plot might come first but it only works and is driven convincingly if you know your characters and where they’re coming from.
-What provided the inspiration for the world in which Nemesister is set, a seedy but exciting place of motels, casinos and petty crime? Did much research go into making it so convincing or did you just let your imagination run free?
It was just that Red was always a Southern ‘Gent’, if I can put it like that – his voice with that mix of charm and sleaze which is so redolent of that area which meant that it kind of had to be there. I’ve watched a lot of movies in the same area and read a lot of Southern Gothic fiction, and of course it is such a devious mix of that constructed refinement over a deep, disturbing past only just under the surface which is so good to mine, offers lots of potential. It’s really a metaphor for so much of what the book is about, the way we construct a respectable face to hide what’s really going on below, to hide it from the world and from ourselves a lot of the time. I’ve also spent some time in similar environments in London, so it’s not too big a stretch to write them in a different country. Sleaze pretty much feels the same, even if it sounds different.
-Red is an alluring but sometimes terrifying character – was he fun to write or was it difficult channeling that mentality?
Yeah, he was great fun! He’s based on some elements of some actual Iraq War vets I knew, one of whom was in the foreign legion from Alabama, and very conventional upper class Brit I met in a fetish club ( long story!) Of course, that really only filled in the back ground for Red, he is his own person. I used to act out the scenes with him in to get the voice right, I even used to walk the dog while having conversations as him out loud – I find if you have a mobile phone clamped to your ear, no one questions what you’re doing, and the dog never minded! He often says the most terrible things just to see what impact he can make, which is always good fun to do, and it was oddly liberating to find that there was such depth to him, when at first he is a very unappealing person, especially to my white liberal sensibilities!
-There are some challenging and dark themes in the book – child abuse and the guilt of survivors, for example. How important was it to you to tackle these issues in the book and what message do you hope it might have for readers?
I think that you can’t write about these areas without looking at all aspects of it, and I think I was trying very much to draw a link between the PTSD suffered by people exposed to active duty and that of those exposed to abuse and exploration. In my mind there are very direct parallels, and I think people who suffer both carry a great deal of guilt in different forms, which is the most destructive thing about it. I think message wise I’d like people to takeaway that you actually don’t have to solve your problems, or make things better, or that you can;t do any of these things until you can forgive yourself, which neither of my characters have. I’m also a great believer in the Chinese saying that ‘ a man who set out on revenge better dig two graves,’ as I’ve never found that revenge as a motive actually helps anyone.
-I see Nemesister is the first in a series. Will this be an ongoing thing or do you have a set number of books in mind? And when can we expect further instalments?
Yes, there is a sequel, which I’m taking over with the publisher now and I hope will be out next spring. I never thought there would be one when I finished Nemesister, until a week later I was writing it. I obviously won’t give anything away, but the story wraps round Nemesister and goes deeper into the story before, as well as what happens right after the first book ends. The hardest part was finding a setting to equal the poor old shack for atmosphere, but I think I’ve managed it. Where it is, you’ll have to wait and see!