We Are All Terrible And Beautiful: Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street
We’re kicking off an all-lady writers, all-mystery book review prize pack this week. Will we do this sort of themed review week every week? No, because we cannot read that much and there are not that many genres to write about unless we delve into fanfic and ewwww. There’s been a…spate? a scrum? a some arbitrarily large enough number of recent suspense/mystery books by female authors so let’s get our read on, shall we?
First up, Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street. HarperCollins gave Dennis Lehane his own imprint a year or so back, and this is the second book he’s released. It’s easy to see how this book fits nicely into the Lehane mold – and that’s a huge compliment. Lehane has written books in the classic detective model (the six-book Patrick Kenzie/Angela Gennaro series) that are some of the most solid in the genre, but he really shines at writing darkly evocative explorations of human motivation, good and bad, in Mystic River and Shutter Island. Incidentally, both of those books were made into awesome films and you should see them right now. Pochoda’s book travels the same not-actually-all-that-well-worn path with a claustrophobic story of a death in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn as that part of town simultaneously disintegrates and gentrifies.
The bare outlines of the plot are simple: late one hot summer night, two fifteen-year old girls take a raft out into the bay, and only one returns, washed ashore, memory of the night missing. After that event, though, there’s no whodunit, no detective roaming the streets to find a killer, no string of murders that follows. There’s really just a story that is ultimately about coming of age, of coming undone, of loss and love.
Like Lehane, Pochoda relies upon shifting inner monologues, each character getting a turn to explore, explain, and justify their own actions. There’s Val, the survivor of the night on the raft, who is both tormented by her survival and utterly determined to grow out of the grief of it. There’s Jonathan, a once-bright child star now fallen from grace and living a hard-drinking lonely life on the waterfront. He rescues Val but can’t seem to rescue himself even a little bit. There’s Cree, the boy that watches the girls float out on the raft, envying the infinite possibilities they might have in contrast to his own landlocked life. The book’s main characters circle each other in ever-decreasing arcs until they collide, lives crashing together.
Not everything in the book is perfect. As regards race, the characters can be a bit broadly drawn. Val’s white firefighter father is a a drinker who hates the blacks. Cree’s African-American family has a crack addict, a tragic senseless death, and a young gospel singer. These things are missteps, to be sure, but they ultimately don’t detract from the book’s atmosphere.
Should you read it? Not if you’re looking for a traditional mystery. Not if you’re looking for a book where at the end everything is wrapped in a neat bow. Most definitely yes if you’re a Lehane fan or you appreciate books that uplift your sense of the human condition even as it explores some of the saddest parts of it.
Rating: On a scale from James Patterson to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this is a solid Harper Lee.
Visitation Street is out now via HarperCollins/Dennis Lehane