Invisible City by Julia Dahl is about a murder in a Hasidic NYC community, and the only way for hopeful big-city reporter Rebekah to catch the killer is to must immerse herself in the traditionally closed-door culture (available May 6, 2014).
World building is something readers often associate with fantasy worlds or stories set on far-flung planets. But world building can is also part of contemporary novels, creating a distinct sense of place and time even in the modern world.
That’s the case with Julia Dahl’s debut novel, Invisible City. From the description, I expected a story of an intrepid reporter investigating a murder in the closed-off Hasidic community in New York City. Instead, this is more of a journey of self, as much about the way the victim lived as how she died, and about the young reporter, Rebekah Roberts, facing the mystery of her mother and her own connection to the Hasidic community.
Invisible City creates two worlds and a reporter, Rebekah Roberts, who has a foot in both but isn’t fully part of either. Dahls’ prose is short and sharp, obviously shaped by her own journalism career. Her descriptions contain just the right amount of information. In the first chapter, at a crime scene, Dahl introduces the reader to Rebekah’s career and her past.
As a former reporter myself, I loved this part of the opening:
The rest of the press is one the scene when I arrive at the gas station across from the scrap yeard. Pete Calloway from the Ledger is baring his crooked teeth at the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, or as reporters call him, DCPI. DCPI is six inches taller and seventy pounds heavier than Pet. It’s barely twenty degrees out and Pete’s got his hoodie up, his shoulder hunched against the cold, but DCPI is hatless, scarfless, gloveless, coatless. His uniform jacket is pulled up, two inches of starched wool-blend against the icy wind.
“We’re hearing she was found without clothes,” says Pete. “Can you confirm that?”
DCPI looks over Pete’s head and rubs his hands together. Behind him, in the scarp yard along the canal, two excavators stand frozen agains the sky; the grapples attached to their long arms sway slowly, thin scraps of metal hanging from their teeth.
Pete stares up at the cop, who is ignoring him. Both of them are ignoring me.
But very quickly, Dahl introduces the reader to the other focus of the story, the Hasidic family who will play such a large part in the mystery, as well as a glimpse of Rebekah’s anger concerning her absent mother:
I don’t think I’ve ever seen so serious a child. But, of course, I’ve never seen a Hasid-man, woman, or child—not look serious. My mother was Hasidic. She fell in love with my dad—a goy—during a period of teenage rebellion. They had me, named me after my mom’s dead sister, and then she split—back to the black-coated cult in Brooklyn. There aren’t really any ulta-Orthodox Jews where I grew up in Florida but now that I’ve move to New York, I see them every day. They live and work and shop and commute inside the biggest melting pot in the world, but they don’t seem to interact with it at all. But for the costume they wear, they might as well be invisible. The men look hostile, wrapped like undertakers in their hats and coats all year long, their untended beards and dandruff-dusted shoulders like a middle finger to anyone forced against them on the subway at rush hour. The woman look simultaneously sexless and fecund in aggressively flat shoes, thick flesh-colored stockings and shape-less clothing, but always surrounded by children. I picture their homes dark and stale, with thick carpet and yellowing linoleum and low foam ceilings and thin towels. Are the little boys allowed action figures and race cars? Does somebody make a knockoff Hasidic Barbie for little girls? Barbie pushing a baby carriage and walking behind Ken. Barbie who leaves her kid.
The victim, who is found naked, is the mother of the young boy that Rebekah glimpses in the first chapter. Rebekah’s intrigued by the story but, as a part-time stringer, she lacks the weight to convince an editor to pursue it. Instead, she’s sent off on a stake-out to get a quote from an elusive celebrity involved in a scandal or other thankless reporting tasks.
Still, she’s pulled back to the murder story by encounters with the woman’s husband, cousin, and best friend, as well as a former member of the community who hints at secrets, like the cover-up of not only the victim’s murder but of the death of the victim’s baby. As Rebekah stumbles further into the story the stakes rise for her professionally and personally. If she screws up the story, she may get fired. If she fails to connect with her sources in the Hasidic community, she may never understand why her mother abandoned her.
The solution to the mystery surprised me, though all the clues were there, providing an excellent ending. But the Hasidic insularity turns out to be not wholly negative and filled with more compassion than Rebekah expected.
It’s an excellent start to a new series.
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Corrina Lawson is a writer, mom, geek and superhero, though not always all four on the same day. She is a senior editor of the GeekMom blog at Wired and the author of a superhero romance series and an alternate history series featuring Romans and Vikings in ancient North America. She has been a comic book geek all her life and often dreamed of growing up to be Lois Lane.