Certain words tend to get overused in book reviews, such as “riveting.” Sorry, but Invisible City, Julia Dahl’s debut novel, is riveting. I couldn’t put it down without thinking about when I might be able to pick it up again, and it was finished all too soon for my taste. This story developed a life of its own, and the cast of characters began to walk off the pages into real life.
Dahl, a journalist herself, has painted the world of reporting and newsrooms with a welcome realism often absent from books that attempt to capture this rapidly changing profession. She is remarkable in her ability to portray the life of a tabloid journalist in today’s New York City, and then she adds another layer by setting the rush and tumble of the city against Brooklyn’s insular Hasidic Jewish community.
Rebekah Roberts, the daughter of a Hasidic mother who abandoned her and her non-Jewish father when Rebekah was a baby, becomes heavily involved in this world when she’s called to a murder scene linked to the Hasidim, as well as to people who may know of her mother’s current whereabouts. Rebekah’s narrative yields a surprising and uncompromising look at the individuals in this multilayered community, with its stalwarts and pariahs, its avid followers and secretive doubters. The reins of power wielded by law enforcement are often compromised by those of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, and it’s entirely possible that the murderer may escape into the depths of this society bound by tradition and longstanding fear.
No character in Dahl’s tale escapes scrutiny, and each one is drawn with an exacting brush to the author’s high standards. Each character becomes a surprise as the story unfolds, including several who straddle the line that separates a host of often-conflicting religious and civil constraints.
Rebekah must find her own entry into this tight-knit community, as she travels from the dark and closed homes of powerful Hasidic leaders to the shabby headquarters of a group that welcomes those who’ve come to question whether their strict religion holds all the answers. This is riveting stuff indeed, and Dahl is a major talent I am eager to revisit in the future.