A review of the debut novel Invisible City by Julia Dahl

The Story: A naked woman’s body found in a Brooklyn scrap yard is news, so the paper sends their newest stringer, Rebekah Roberts, to get the story. There she finds herself in the midst of the Hassidic community, the same one her mother escaped from and later returned to, thereby abandoning her baby girl. Rebekah begins to temper her journalistic ambition and the need to get her scoop with the uneasy possibility of solving another mystery – that of her mother’s 20 years of silence.

My Review:

Crime dramas usually aren’t my thing, but one that involved the ultra-orthodox/Hasidic/Haredi world sounded intriguing. Their famous (or perhaps infamous) insular and separatist world is fascinating – even if it sometimes infuriates or mystifies us. To allow Rebekah to cross that line from our world into theirs, Dahl uses the ingenious combination of a newspaper reporter (the press and paparazzi don’t care about privacy) who is not only Jewish, but also the daughter of one of them. The question is does this ingenuity work?

Cover art courtesy of us.macmillan.com

Cover art courtesy of us.macmillan.com

The answer to that depends on several things. To begin with, I’m always on the lookout for factual inaccuracies about Judaism and Jews in fiction. In reality, people delving into a part of society that is not only foreign to them, but also the source of rumors and conjecture will face many brick walls. New York’s Hasidic community in particular isn’t one that will open its doors for investigation. Even when they do, their trepidation will often prevent researchers from getting too close to any uncomfortable truths. Dahl making Rebekah technically Jewish does open some lines of hesitant communication; however, I’m not convinced they would have been quite as forthcoming as Dahl makes them, particularly because of Rebekah’s gender. Not that Dahl has them tripping over themselves to reveal their dirty secrets, but one or two male characters did seem a bit more communicative with a female than I would have expected. Of course, I could be wrong and perhaps the behavior among New York Hasidim isn’t the same as what I’ve experienced and observed among Haredim here in Israel.

When it comes to the narrator of this story, Dahl uses a first person account by Rebekah, imbued with a gruffness that is well in keeping with the crime-beat journalism scene. This seemed a touch out of place since Rebekah is a new stringer, so I wondered if she wasn’t just a bit overly hard-boiled for a reporter this young. On the other hand, this tone makes more sense when you realize Rebekah lived her whole life estranged from her biological mother, shrouding everything she knew about her in various levels of anger and doubt. This also tempers her toughness with a vulnerability of youth combined with the innate insecurity of someone just starting out in her career. With this mixture, it then becomes reasonable that Rebekah is of two minds regarding finding her mother.

Finally, what would a good crime drama be without a good plot? With this murder, and in the best traditions of any mystery, Dahl leads us down blind alleys and towards her eventual twist without revealing too much. In fact, her clues are so subtle that I was actually surprised to find out who the murderer was (I’m usually very good at figuring these things out). Dahl does this with a very even pace throughout most of the book, so that when the climax finally comes, the adrenaline kicks in, and everything goes up a notch, making for a truly exciting reveal. This shows an exceptional talent for a debut novelist, and if she can repeat this in her next novel, she’ll be well on her way to being a superstar.

In short, Dahl has brought us a marvelously developed and still-changing character that acts and reacts to her surroundings and situations with a lovely balance of the expected and unexpected. The “added value” here is how Dahl connects two veritable parallel universes – that of today’s modern, secular, big-city world and the traditional, tight one of New York’s Hasidic communities. There is no doubt in my mind that Dahl’s Rebekah Roberts is exactly the type of protagonist that crime fiction readers will want to follow for several volumes. For all this, I highly recommend this book with an extremely strong four and a half stars out of five, even to people who don’t usually read crime drama.

NG Apple_NetGalley Health Rev 3“Invisible City” by Julia Dahl is the first in a series of books featuring Rebekah Roberts, released May 20, 2014 by St. Martin’s Press – Minotaur Books (a division of MacMillan Publishers). I would like to thank the publishers for giving me an advance reader copy of this novel via NetGalley.

This book is available from the Book Depository, on iBooks, from Amazon (print or kindle), from Barnes & Noble, via Kobo or from an IndieBound bookstore near you. (A version of this review originally appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Voices on April 28, 2014.)