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Ivy Pochoda uses words as though she invented them for the sole purpose of telling us a story so riveting that our eyes can't leave the page. As perfect sentence follows perfect sentence, Red Hook becomes the readers only reality. The characters step out of the shadows and take on individual form. With them, we feel the sticky summer night, smell the fetid water of the river, see the skyline after dark. With them we experience the tension of not knowing what happened, and not knowing who is good and who is not.
Ms. Pochoda does a wonderful job of examining the ghosts who haunt us. Some of her characters accept that ghosts exist separate from us. Others realize they are part of us and our memories. Either way, they can drag us under or save us. I enjoyed the way she wove spiritualism through the book.
I believe this is a beautifully composed novel of suspense, a treasure for any reader to find.
This book was chosen by Dennis Lehane to be published under his imprint and after reading this I can certainly see why. The Red Hook area in Brooklyn, an area that contains middle class families, pushing against the tenements, a diverse grouping of people that have made some wonderful characters. For some reason this book has really resonated with me, I find myself thinking about it more and more. It is a book that has many different layers, there is much going on above and below the surface.
Betsey Van Horn
Two young girls, who have been friends for a long time, are bored and so they decide to take a plastic inflatable raft onto the East River. One girl is found, early the next morning half drowned, but the other is not found, leading everyone to speculate on what happened. The girl who is found claims she does not remember anything.
The big story though is not the missing girl, so much as what her disappearance causes others in the neighborhood to do and act. Layer by layer different people, have their lives exposed, hopes and dreams, restitution and punishment. It is the ghosts that are in our midst, those alive that we do not notice, ghosts that inhabit places we overlook, the ghosts of guilt and the fear of acceptance. Of course, there are real ghosts as well, those who have lived, that do not want to leave. It is about being instead of looking for a way out and appreciating what we have. Amazing book. I hope others think so too.
I am familiar with the concept of an "urban opera," which is why I chose to read this book. Richard Price and Karin Fossum are masters at this genre. As was Lehane in MYSTIC RIVER and GONE BABY GONE. Like VISITATION STREET, urban opera often starts with a crime/police procedural as a trigger. Then, the narrative at hand observes the effect of the crime on a town, and its people. Often, the police procedural recedes somewhat as other forces--such as the psychology of the town's inhabitants and a rendering of the town itself as a character--begin to bloom. So far, so good, as VISITATION STREET promises to deliver a similar type of narrative.
Red Hook, a sketchy area of Brooklyn, is a town of struggling blue-collar workers, modest bodega owners, and also various losers. Beneath the surface is a racial and ethnic tension that is precariously kept at bay. One summer night, two white fifteen-year-old girls, Val and June, take a rubber raft out on the harbor to float under the moonlight. The next morning, Val is found with a head injury, but June has disappeared. This is the trigger that opens the story.
The rest of the novel observes and explores a select number of inhabitants that all have a tenuous connection to Val, although none of them are friends or family (well, the family connections stay rather superficial). June's disappearance is the vehicle for an exploration of Red Hook, as the town burgeons into a character, made up of many characters who are isolated from each other, but desperately trying to connect.
"A chorus of new voices...They are rough and eroded. They sound like the ache of the wind in a charred forest, the rattle of a can rolling down an empty street, the whisper of dust in a gutted building--hollow, noises unaccustomed to an audience. They suggest a loneliness worse than pain."
The prose is sometimes quite lovely, if rather flat. However, the construction/architecture of the story itself tried too hard without really having much lift-off. There is certainly a lot of potential and ambition here, but the threads that the author uses to connect her characters and events are inorganic.
The characterizations are insubstantial, except for the Lebanese bodega owner, who deserves his own novel. He was sharply drawn with fine nuances, and I was engaged with him as the community's epicenter of information. But much of the interaction and dialogue between characters are contrived. It is difficult to be specific without spoilers, but I will say that, rather than depicting authentic relationships, it reads as if chain-assembled. I felt that the author had a fixed idea of how she wanted this to play out, and forced her characters in place.
Pochoda over-explains in order to cement the weak network of individuals to each other. Whenever a character does something morally ambiguous, she subsequently goes into a breathy explanation instead of trusting the reader to comprehend. And any time a scene, event, or character steps into enigmatic territory, Pochoda sabotages the tension by giving the reader too much information directly afterwards.
Another problem I had was with the tone, which derailed the intended atmospherics of the town itself. I wanted to be haunted by the ghost metaphors, but they were too underdeveloped and overstated. And, when the author took it one step further, and onerously went beyond metaphor, I wanted to slam the book down in disgust. However, Pochoda's graceful writing made it possible for me to finish. I hope that her next book will have the ebullience and believability that, like June, were missing in this one. This is one of those rare novels that, given a strong director, could be a better movie than the book.