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Sunday, July 20, 2014

'Invisible City' by Julia Dahl

From the BLURB:

Just months after Rebekah Roberts was born, her mother, an Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn, abandoned her Christian boyfriend and newborn baby to return to her religion. Neither Rebekah nor her father have heard from her since. Now a recent college graduate, Rebekah has moved to New York City to follow her dream of becoming a big-city reporter. But she’s also drawn to the idea of being closer to her mother, who might still be living in the Hasidic community in Brooklyn.

Then Rebekah is called to cover the story of a murdered Hasidic woman. Rebekah’s shocked to learn that, because of the NYPD’s habit of kowtowing to the powerful ultra-Orthodox community, not only will the woman be buried without an autopsy, her killer may get away with murder. Rebekah can’t let the story end there. But getting to the truth won’t be easy—even as she immerses herself in the cloistered world where her mother grew up, it's clear that she's not welcome, and everyone she meets has a secret to keep from an outsider.

Rebekah Roberts moved to New York City from Florida a few months ago. Since then she got a job as a reporter, and lost the same job when the paper folded shortly thereafter (the newspaper business ain’t exactly booming, have you heard?). Now Rebekah has a job working as a ‘stringer’ for tabloid paper, New York Tribune. It’s not her ideal job (certainly not always aligned with her ethics) – as stringer, Rebekah works freelance for the Tribune and is first on the scene for breaking news stories as well as stories less likely to make the final edition. Rebekah doesn’t have an office, per-se, New York is her office and as stringer she needs to get to locations quickly and scout sources (yes, it’s her job to find people who discovered dead bodies, hound police for answers and ask grieving loved ones how they’re feeling).

On a cold, blistery New York morning Rebekah is assigned to a call down at a scrapyard where a body has been found in the mouth of a crane. But what starts as a fairly cut and dry story (though gruesome) quickly captures Rebekah’s attention when the body is confirmed to be that of a woman … then three Hasidic Jewish men arrive on the scene, followed by a specially marked van competing with the coroner for authority over the body, and Rebekah starts to learn just how complicated this story, and case, could become. 

The woman was a Hasidic Jew from Borough Park in Brooklyn. It is their religious belief that every hair and scrap of blood be buried with the deceased – thereby potentially eliminating evidence. Once the Hasidic community retrieve the body, everyone all but informs Rebekah that the case is over; the NYPD are known to relinquish cases dealing with Hasidic Jews – even homicides – lest they step on religious toes, and they don’t even object when families decline autopsy for murder victims (a body is not allowed to be cut open). 

But this case is hitting close to home for Rebekah, whose own mother was a Hasidic Jew from Borough Park, who met Rebekah’s ‘goy’ father during her teenage rebellion when she was questioning her Ultra-Orthodox religion. But once Rebekah was born her mother returned to her community, abandoning her baby and never making contact with her father again. Rebekah has grown up with anxiety and a deep sadness over her mother’s abandonment of her, and she can’t deny that at the back of her mind choosing to move from Florida to New York may have had something to do with wanting to try and find her mother after all these years…

As stringer, it’s Rebekah’s job to move from story to story as the news hits – but she can’t let go of the ‘body at the scrapyard’. Not when she learns the woman’s name – Rivka Mendelssohn – and starts to dig into her life, and discovers she too was questioning her Ultra-Orthodox upbringing, the same way Rebekah’s mother did all those years ago.

Then Rebekah meets Saul Katz, of the NYPD Shomrim (a fraternal organization for Jewish police officers of the New York City Police Department). Saul recognises Rebekah instantly, because he knew her mother and they look so very much alike. Though Saul deals mostly in theft cases, he is very invested in Rivka Mendelssohn’s death, and angry at the lack of NYPD involvement (nobody has even bought in Rivka’s husband, the influential Aron Mendelssohn, for questioning even though he owns the scrapyard where her body was found). He agrees to being Rebekah’s police informant as she keeps digging into the case…

‘Invisible City’ is the debut novel from Julia Dahl, a journalist specializing in crime and criminal justice who has previously worked for CBS and the New York Post.

I kept hearing about this book from – who ran several promotional ads and give-aways of Dahl’s debut. I loved the eerie cover, and was thoroughly intrigued by a crime-thriller based around the Hasidic Jewish community of Brooklyn. Now that I’ve read the book I have half-n’-half feelings, though I am crossing my fingers that Dahl writes more in (what I assume is?) the series, since Goodreads have labelled ‘Invisible City’ as ‘Rebekah Roberts #1’.

Straight off the bat – Rebekah having been abandoned by her Hasidic Jewish mother as a baby rings very, very convenient for this story and starts to feel clunky quite quickly. Yes, it establishes a backdrop for Rebekah and instantly gives readers some idea about the emotional instability of this protagonist. But Dahl relies heavily on Rebekah’s absent mother for plot convenience, when those in the Jewish community can seemingly tell that Rebekah is ‘one of them’ just by looking at her and it’s because of her mother that she gains a vital police informant in Saul Katz. I think Dahl relied on the mother plot too, to cut many corners in Rebekah’s investigations which also meant pacing and suspense sometimes suffered – I think ‘Invisible City’ would have been a very different (perhaps better?) story if Rebekah had actually been a true outsider to this community, instead of feeling torn between her heritage and misplaced feelings of abandonment/rejection by the community.

He thinks I’ve turned away from God. Those were his actual words. I called him to say how bad I’d been feeling sophomore year in college. I told him how I was scared all the time but I didn’t exactly know what of. Well, he said with a kind of sadness, You’ve turned away from God. His words infuriated me. I’ve never seen or heard or felt this “God”, but my life is basically a mess made by people twisting themselves into knots, trying to please him.

I don’t know, possibly Rebekah’s mother could play a bigger part in subsequent stories – but for this first instalment, there was an over-reliance and too much convenience and it even felt like Dahl was cutting emotional corners by being so on-the-nose to have Rebekah investigate the murder of a Hasidic Jewish woman when her own mother was one, and abandoned her for the very same community that harbours Rivka Mendelssohn’s killer. Y’know?

It may sound like I had a really big issue with the whole story, if I couldn’t get past this huge crux of it. But, actually, mother-issues aside, I thoroughly enjoyed and was happily sucked into Dahl’s crime-thriller. The Hasidic Jewish setting in Brooklyn is fascinating – I have little to no knowledge about that community, and the way Dahl fed readers information (sometimes outrageous, as it related to the homicide case!) was incredible.

“It’s what they do when it comes to domestic violence and mental illness and sexual abuse. All of which occurs in the community, just like in any other community. But here the shame of coming forward is compounded. Generally, Jews in this community believe that speaking to the authorities about another Jew is a sin against the community. It’s mesirah, they say.” 
Mesirah. It’s Yiddish. It means reporting on your fellow Jew. In the past, in Europe, if a Jew was arrested and sent to prison, he would be killed there. So it was every Jew’s duty to keep other Jews out of prison, which means not talking to the police.” 
“Even now?” 
“Even now.”

This was one crime-thriller in which setting definitely dictated all aspects, and became a character unto itself. It was also really intriguing because Dahl made women such a big focus of the story – the patriarchal world these women live in in the Hasidic community is explored particularly well.

My dad used to tell me stories about my mom as if she were a character in a fairy tale. Like most suburban girls growing up in the 1990s, I learned about sex young. I was nine when our Girl Scout troop went to Planned Parenthood to learn about ovaries and sperm. I learned the rest sporadically from Madonna songs and Maury Povich and maybe someone’s mom’s copy of ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’. I had several years for the act itself to morph from mildly horrifying to potentially cool, and several years after that to actually get involved in doing it. Not my mother. My mother, my father said, learned about sex only in whispers. 
I will say that some aspects of the story needed tightening and cutting. Rebekah has just started a romantic relationship, of sorts, with a local bar-owner called Tony that kind of went nowhere but that Dahl relied on (again, for plot short-cuts) to give Rebekah more ties to the NYPD. Sometimes Dahl’s writing lent itself more to literary styling than crime-thriller (indeed; pacing felt off, particularly at the end, and I felt that overall the book needed bigger injections of ‘thriller’).

This book sways between a 3 and 3.5 for me. This is, after all, Dahl’s debut and if it’s for an ongoing crime series then she has good bones in Rebekah Roberts – the mother stuff may have felt overly convenient for much of this first book, but I see great potential for it to be explored (deeper, and better) in subsequent instalments. I do hope Saul Katz remains a player in any subsequent books too (in fact … I did wonder halfway through if Saul would have been a better protagonist to base this series around, especially when his backstory was far more compelling than Rebekah’s absentee mother for me?). But I can’t deny that Dahl gave me chills with some of her passages, the focus on murder in a Hasidic Jewish community of Brooklyn makes for captivating reading and I can see future potential for this sleuth. Not perfect, but pretty damn good.


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