Summer in Red Hook, Brooklyn, a blue collar neighbourhood where hipster gourmet supermarkets push against tired housing projects, and the East River opens into the bay. Bored and listless, fifteen-year-old June and Val are looking for some fun. Forget the boys, the bottles, the coded whistles. Val wants to do something wild and a little crazy: take a raft out onto the bay. But out on the water, as the bright light of day gives way to darkness, the girls disappear. Only Val will survive, washed ashore semi-conscious in the weeds. June’s shocking disappearance will reverberate in the lives of a diverse cast of Red Hook residents. Fadi, the Lebanese bodega owner, trolls for information about the crime. Cree, just beginning to pull it together after his father’s murder, unwittingly makes himself the chief suspect – although an elusive guardian seems to have other plans for him. As Val emerges from the shadow of her missing friend, her teacher Jonathan, Juilliard drop-out and barfly, will be forced to confront a past riddled with tragic sins of omission.
In all honesty, I could simply reduce the length of my review of Visitation Street to a stream of complimentary adjectives, such is the mesmeric beauty of this book. However, as regular readers of this blog would probably appreciate a little more insight from the Raven, here are my thoughts…
The first notable quality of this novel is the way that it encompasses not only the best of contemporary American fiction in its depth of issues and characterisation, but also how it threads into the central narrative a compelling crime strand. Focussing on the New York shore-dwelling community of Red Hook, the book opens with two young girls embarking on a trip to the shoreline armed with a raft in the hope of adventure. Only one makes it back to safety, with the crux of the story then revolving around the disappearance of the other. From this initial mystery, Pochoda weaves a multi-layered narrative, perfectly constructing the lives of this run-down community and the minutiae of their personal troubles. Each character is filled with a vibrancy and clarity of depiction, that truly reflects the socio-economic pressures of life within their community be they a humble store owner, a struggling music teacher or a youth attempting to rebuild his life in the shadow of past sins. Pochoda captures the themes of poverty and race with pinpoint precision, and imbues the book with protagonists who will draw your empathy or dislike in equal measure. There are scenes within the book that will simply transfix you in their brutal simplicity and the rhythmical and utterly authentic dialogue sings from the pages.
Having achieved such an attention to detail as previously mentioned, I feared that the central crime of the piece would somehow get lost in the meticulous attention to these other aspects, but my fears were dispelled as the novel progressed and the truth surrounding the girl’s ill-fated river trip, and a young man’s discovery of the real events behind his father’s murder come to light. Both these plotlines unfold beautifully in the course of the book as you become more and more immersed in this unique but blighted community of people getting on with their lives in the best way that they can. It is little wonder that Dennis Lehane felt so compelled to trumpet this book to the wider reading community, and on the strength of this novel Ivy Pochoda will certainly be a writer to watch in the future. A remarkable read and I have no qualms of labelling this as one of the best books I have read this year.
Ivy Pochoda grew up in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn and lived in Red Hook for several years. She is the author of The Art of Disappearing. A former professional squash player, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband. http://ivypochoda.com/ Follow on Twitter @ivypochoda
(I bought this copy of Visitation Street)