Can you say “metaphor”? The title of Julia Dahl’s novel, Invisible City, may mislead you into thinking it’s science fiction, but it’s not. Not in the least. If you have to assign it to a genre, it’s a mystery — though it’s just as much a mainstream novel.
So…what does the title mean? The story takes place in Brooklyn, which is certainly not an invisible city. Ah, but the setting is actually an insular, ultra-Orthodox, Hasidic community within Brooklyn, and that’s the community that’s usually not seen by outsiders. Hence…well, you get the idea.
So the mystery of the title is solved. But what’s the mystery that’s presented and solved in the story? It seems to be a traditional whodunit, in that the protagonist is attempting to figure out who murdered the wife of a prominent Hasidic businessman. But that description merely scratches the surface. Not far below that surface is the life of the first-person narrator, a very young reporter for the New York Post (actually, it’s called the New York Tribune in this novel, but it’s clearly the Post). Not so coincidentally, the author herself also used to write for the Post. The narrator, Rebekah Roberts, is the irreligious daughter of an Orthodox Jewish mother and a Lutheran father (a theologian). The author, Julia Dahl, is the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish mother and a Lutheran father (a deacon). In accordance with tradition, both daughters are automatically Jewish.
“Write what you know,” as they say.
Of course Roberts isn’t Dahl. This isn’t a roman à clef. For one thing, Roberts’s mother abandoned her husband and her when she was six months old, whereas Dahl’s parents are still together. The missing mother (named Aviva, interestingly enough) has returned to the fold — the Hasidic community, that is, not Rebekah’s family. Although she doesn’t appear directly in this novel, there’s enough foreshadowing to suggest that we will meet her in the sequel. For this work we are focused entirely on Rebekah, her friends and colleagues, and the members of the Hasidic community, with a cameo by her father. The narrative voice can be a little irritating, but that’s because it’s all too convincingly that of a 22-year-old.
I found the story and the characters both interesting and convincing. I had to do some inquiring to find out how realistic the setting is, and apparently it’s very much so (with one possible exception, which I won’t reveal). I’m looking forward to the inevitable sequel.