Invisible City by Julia Dahl - book review
When the body of a Hasidic Jewish woman is found in a New York scrapyard, rookie reporter Rebekah Roberts finds herself immersed in a cloistered world where it soon becomes clear she is not welcome.
But Rebekah is on a mission to find not just a murderer, but her own Orthodox Jewish mother who walked out on the family twenty years ago and has never returned.
The closed life of Hasidic Jews – an Orthodox spiritual revivalist movement which emerged in 18th-century Eastern Europe but is today centered mainly in Israel and the New York metropolitan area – is explored in a powerful and riveting debut novel from Julia Dahl, a journalist specialising in crime and criminal justice.
Invisible City, a finalist for the Edgar and Mary Higgins Clark Awards, is the first book of a thrilling crime series starring the smart and sassy Rebekah Roberts, a dogged tabloid reporter who is haunted by her Hasidic mother’s disappearance when she was just a baby and determined to gain an understanding of her own heritage.
Just months after Rebekah was born, her mother Aviva, a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn who ran away to Florida with her Christian boyfriend, left to return to her religion. Neither Rebekah nor her father have heard from her since but after recently graduating from college, Rebekah has moved to New York City to follow her dream of becoming a big city reporter.
But Rebekah is also drawn to the idea of being closer to her mother who might still be living in the city’s Hasidic community. The hole her mother left has never healed, leaving her daughter with ‘a raw gap, tender and prone to infection.’
Rebekah is a ‘stringer’ at the Tribune, working daily shifts with no job security, calling in, getting an assignment and running with a story which will ultimately be rewritten by an assortment of staff back at the paper.
When she is called out to the murder of Hasidic woman, Rivka Mendelssohn, whose naked body has been dumped in a scrapyard in Brooklyn on a bitterly cold winter’s day, Rebekah is shocked to learn that, because of the NYPD’s habit of bowing 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. As she starts investigating the local Hasidic community where her mother grew up and eventually rebelled, she soon discovers that everyone she meets has a secret to keep, and most of all from an outsider.
Dahl’s fast-paced, tension-packed story paints a revealing – and not unsympathetic – portrait of the secretive, inwardly-focused life of Hasidic Jews whilst also probing fearlessly and insightfully into the murky, merciless world of tabloid journalism.
A veteran reporter herself, Dahl writes with the assurance and pacing of a seasoned author, delivering a suspense-packed story, wonderfully zingy dialogue, and a descriptive power that renders the freezing streets of wintertime Brooklyn so real that readers might feel tempted to blow on their icy fingers.
Invisible City is a stunning first novel, encompassing diverse issues like family, religion, corruption and cover-ups, and introducing us to a seductive new heroine who promises to be the cleverest kid on the block!
(Faber & Faber, paperback, £7.99)