Monday, September 16, 2013

Review: Visitation Street

Summary: Summer in Red Hook, Brooklyn, an isolated blue-collar neighborhood where hipster gourmet supermarkets push against tired housing projects and the East River opens into the bay. Bored and listless, fifteen-year-olds June and Val are looking for fun. Forget the boys, the bottles, the coded whistles. Val wants to do something wild and a little crazy: take a raft out onto the bay. But on the water during the humid night, the girls disappear. Only Val survives, washing ashore in the weeds, bruised and unconscious.

 This shocking event echoes through the lives of Red Hook's diverse residents. Fadi, the Lebanese bodega owner, hopes that his shop is a place to share neighborhood news, and he trolls for information about June's disappearance. Cree, just beginning to pull it together after his father's murder, unwittingly makes himself the chief suspect in the investigation, but an enigmatic and elusive guardian is determined to keep him safe. Val contends with the shadow of her missing friend and a truth she's buried deep inside. Her teacher Jonathan, a Juilliard dropout and barfly, wrestles with dashed dreams and a past riddled with tragic sins.

 In Visitation Street, Ivy Pochoda combines intensely vivid prose with breathtaking psychological insight to explore a cast of solitary souls, pulled by family, love, betrayal, and hope, who yearn for a chance to break free. -- Dennis Lehane Books

When I picked up VISITATION STREET by Ivy Pochoda, I had a feeling that I was in for a treat. The novel is the second published under Dennis Lehane's line of books, and it also received four starred reviews. That this novel was very well written came as no surprise to me, but I admit that I was expecting more of a traditional mystery. Having said that, I really appreciated this novel; and I was actually blown away by Ms. Pochoda's storytelling abilities.

Even though I'm using VISITATION STREET for a Mystery Monday post, I would actually say that this novel is more literary than mystery. However, there is a mystery aspect to this story. The novel takes place in Red Hook, Brooklyn, with the disappearance of two high school girls. Val and June are looking for a little fun, so they decide to take a raft out on the East River. After the raft capsizes, Val finds her way to the shore while June is considered missing.

The girl's disappearance affects many members of the Red Hook community. None more so than Val who has to deal with losing June as well as carrying a secret. There is also Fadi the bodega owner who dreams that his shop will be a place for the residents to come together. Cree is a young man who becomes the main suspect after he admits to seeing the girls on the raft. And Jonathan is a one-time brilliant musician who ended up as music teacher at the local high school.

In what seems like a very diverse and unrelated cast of characters, VISITATION STREET explores the affects of June's disappearance on their lives while also providing insight into their personal challenges.

I found VISITATION STREET to be an extremely powerful novel, and I think that's a testament to the author. Ms. Pochoda (who was a former professional squash player of all things!) managed to bring to life these characters, and they really got under my skin... in a good way. Her prose was beautiful, and yet it was almost gritty, especially as she described the community and its struggles to deal with change.

As interesting as the story and characters were, I think the strength of this novel was in Ms. Pochoda's portrayal of Red Hook and its citizens. Red Hook is an extremely diverse community, going through lots of change; and I love how she juxtaposed the issues in the neighborhood with the issues of the people living there. With her vivid detail, she managed to evoke a feeling of desire or longing for change in these characters that was almost unsettling to me in its honesty.

I was a little surprised that I wasn't able to find a reader's guide or discussion questions for VISITATION STREET. Because it is such a literary novel, I think there are many things to talk about including change, guilt, anger, fear, racism, prejudice, and differences in class. I also think many readers will want to further explore the diversity of Red Hook and what that means to a community.

While VISITATION STREET wasn't as much of a mystery as I had initially expected, I was pleasantly surprised by its depth and the beauty of the writing. Highly recommended.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.

Mystery Mondays is a regular feature where I review all types of mystery books -- traditional mysteries, suspense/thrillers, and even cozies! Please feel free to share your thoughts on any recent mystery books that you've read.


techeditor said...

I'll be reading this soon. I have it in a TBR pile.

Sandy Nawrot said...

That is interesting, I hadn't heard about Lehane's imprints. You would expect that coming from him, there WOULD be more mystery going on. Still I think I tend to appreciate literary thrillers even more.

bermudaonion said...

Sometimes literary mysteries are over my head but this sounds like a book I'd understand and love!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a good review. I still want to read this, even though it is not a traditional mystery.

Beth Hoffman said...

Very nice review, Julie. This one is going on my list!