BookBrowse Reviews Invisible City by Julia Dahl

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Invisible City

A Rebekah Roberts Novel

by Julia Dahl

Invisible City by Julia Dahl X
Invisible City by Julia Dahl
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  • First Published:
    May 2014, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2015, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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Journalist Julia Dahl's riveting debut novel explores one woman's search for the truth about a murder, and her own heritage.

Julia Dahl has real crime-reporting cred, as witnessed by her work for cbsnews.com and the New York Post. But the down-and-dirty witness here is her no-nonsense, crime-writing style in Invisible City: "The glass door rings open and two Jewish men walk inside, carrying the cold on their coats." Even out of context we know from this dazzling economy of words that the men are likely walking into some kind of store (glass door, bell), that it's wintertime (coats), and it's very cold out (carrying the cold on their coats). For the sake of further clarity she goes on to explain how she knows they're Jewish; big black hats, long black coats, bearded with long side curls. No ifs, no ands, no buts. This sparse, clear writing style is more than perfect for a story about a cub beat reporter swimming upstream in New York City's cascading print media market.

Twenty-two-year-old Rebekah Roberts is fresh out of journalism school, working as a "stringer" (freelance reporter) for one of New York's tabloid newspapers. It's one that still has a print presence. She calls in to an editor every day to receive an assignment. She has no job security, no benefits, only a bare bones paycheck at $150 per day. On a sub-freezing January morning she has been assigned the story of a dead body that has been discovered amidst a load of metal at a Brooklyn scrap yard. When she views the body, Rebekah can see it is a naked adult female whose head has been shaved.

Boom. There's your "lede" as the vernacular goes. We're hooked. The woman is soon identified as Rivka Mendelssohn, wife of the Hasidic Jew who owns the scrap yard. And he's a wealthy (read powerful) citizen of Borough Park, a cloistered ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. We – and Rebekah - are further hooked because Rebekah's mother, Aviva Kagan, was also an Hasidic Jew. She abandoned her daughter soon after birth. She may or may not be alive. But Rebekah does know that her mother hailed from this same religious community.

As narrated in the first person by Rebekah, the prose – that spare, no-frills style that is so perfect for a crime story – seamlessly shows us who Rebekah is and what she is thinking; how she is trying to make sense of both the news story and her own personal story, which is made all the more difficult because she and her vocation are so interlaced. It's a mighty struggle for a young reporter to keep the two separate. "From the moment I encountered Rivka Mendelssohn's body and connected her to Aviva's Orthodox world, I was ready to pounce." Because, she concludes, "I only knew the baggage of being me." As a consequence she makes a lot of rookie mistakes, errors in journalistic judgment that almost get her fired and worse.

There is so much packed into Dahl's scaled-down narrative: the murder (not a spoiler), the contrast between what is taught in journalism class and the reality of boots-on-the-ground reporting, the tacit acceptance of lowest-common-denominator tabloids versus lofty journalistic ideals, the whole motherless child vibe that thrums within Rebekah's psyche, and the relevance of ultra-conservative, misogynistic religious communities. Indeed, perhaps the only flaw in Dahl's debut is a few scattered lengthy passages that tend to bog the plot. So much information for those of us unfamiliar with Hasidism. But I, for one, hope Rebekah Roberts keeps her job with that New York tabloid long enough to cover at least one more crime story.

Reviewed by Donna Chavez

This review was originally published in June 2014, and has been updated for the March 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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