Invisible City by Julia Dahl
It’s always fun to see how coincidence can play a part in this reviewing game. It can throw up very interesting comparisons when you’re least expecting it. A few books ago, I was transported back in time to Japan. This is, as you might expect, an opportunity for culture shock since, even at the best of times, Japanese culture can be very difficult to understand. Although we’re in contemporary America with Invisible City by Julia Dahl (Minotaur Books, 2014), we’re dealing with the equally opaque world of the Hasidic Jews. As is always required when I approach a subject that may have controversial overtones, I always disclose any personal factors that might skew my opinion. Through this disclosure I give readers the chance to judge the extent to which I may be biased in the opinions I offer here. So, as I have mentioned on several occasions, I’m a confirmed atheist. But what I have not mentioned earlier is that through the paternal line, I have Jewish blood. Since Judaism is matrilineal, I’m therefore not officially Jewish, but you may feel this influences my views of this book. I should also say that, some twenty-five years ago, I had the opportunity to meet some members of the Hasidic community. This means I started this book with some insight into the lives of the people who live according to this strict code.
In a way, this book is a coming-of-age story on several different levels. This is a young woman who’s looking to convert her theoretical knowledge of journalism into the practical working skills a reporter needs to get the story that will sell newspapers and bring traffic to the website. Not everyone can make this transition and so a portion of this book is devoted to discussing how a new graduate survives in her first freelance job. The problem with this and the other elements is that there’s a fair amount of exposition. Instead of there being content embedded in conversations or internal monologue that can pass by seamlessly, there’s quite a lot of young person angst and some infodumping to get through. Our protagonist, Rebekah Roberts, is slightly more naive than I was expecting and she’s lucky to survive on the journalism front since she seems to have little or no enthusiasm for the activity of writing. All we do see is a slowly emerging curiosity to put pieces together to make up a possible story, but she remains extraordinarily diffident until quite near the end. I have the published articles, books and more than one-million words on this site to prove I’m a writer. This protagonist has no interest in writing for fun. In my “book” that makes her an unrealistic hero.
At a personal level, she’s also unexpectedly pitched back into a personal identity crisis. By coincidence, the first major crime she’s sent out to cover involves the death of a woman who turns out to be a member of the Hasidic community in Brooklyn. This is not what she would have wished because her mother was a Hasidic Jew who had left the Brooklyn community with a Christian man. Immediately after her birth, her mother disappeared and there’s been no contact with her mother since. When she goes to the house of the woman who was killed, there’s a second major coincidence because she meets a man who knew both her mother and father. He proves to be the major catalyst to get her started in the more serious business of being a reporter.
And then there’s the Hasidic community itself. Although it does its best to insulate itself from the outside world, it’s inevitable that some members are contaminated by external ideas. Some of those who grow weak in the faith, like Rebekah’s mother, look for ways to either distance themselves from the community or to leave entirely. For this purpose, there’s a kind of halfway house and an underground railroad for those who want to leave altogether. We therefore see the community as a whole held together by the ties of shared history. To that extent, an outsider might say the community is refusing to come of age, i.e. it remains a historical anomaly because it refuses to adapt itself to contemporary culture. For the few who find it impossible to remain, there are emotional and practical problems in adjusting themselves to a different pace of life outside.
This leaves me with two questions to answer. The first is the obvious, “Is this a good mystery for our rookie journalist to solve?” To this, I give an unqualified yes. This is a tragedy because the culture refuses to adopt what the rest of the world would consider a proper investigative approach to deaths within the community. The protocols to be applied for dealing with the bodies and the speed with which they are to be buried, raises barriers to a thorough investigation. The second question is, “Is the delivery of the plot handled well?” The answer to this is negative. Ignoring the horrendous coincidences (there are others which I have not mentioned), there’s altogether too much exposition and not all the behaviour on display is convincing. Now some of you may say it’s hardly surprising the behaviour is not very credible because the focus of our attention is the Hasidic community and, by modern standards, they do not act in a very reasonable way. In some respects you would be right. But that’s where my original point of comparison with Japanese culture comes into play. At the time the shogunate was at its full power, Japanese society was distinctly dangerous and unpleasant. Yet the way in which the author approaches the analysis of this very different culture is nonjudgemental. We see people treated in an appalling way, but the events are explained and the author passes on. Sadly, this author comes with an agenda to find fault. She’s into conspiracy theories about implicit corruption with the Hasidic community buying themselves power and influence with their money. Not only does this lead to a distortion of the usual process of divorce and issues of child custody, but it also potentially enables people within the community to get away with murder or other serious crimes. It’s entirely possible this is true, but the author’s approach smacks of tabloid journalism with all the facts lined up to reach her damning conclusions. I concede that, in the final pages, there’s a brief balancing explanation both for this community’s insularity and for the general desire of Jewish communities to be low-profile. But if you were not looking for it, you might easily miss it. This is a shame. Invisible City could have been a very interesting book. Instead it’s something of a disaster.
This book was sent to me for review. If you are interested, the book is also available as an audiobook from Macmillan Audio. Here’s a sample clip from the audiobook.