- Visitation Street
- Ivy Pochoda
I recently visited a place on the lake shore of Toronto called Sugar Beach. Complete with pink umbrellas, pale sand and angular white deck chairs, it's a post-modern construction, wry and obviously made, with a view out to Lake Ontario. It's also flanked by the gleaming offices of a media company and the old Redpath Sugar factory, where there is often a massive steel ship filling up. Sitting on Sugar Beach feels like being caught inside a story of the lake shore, an industrial past giving way to a new kind of future.
Sugar Beach holds the same signs of change as Visitation Street, a new novel by Ivy Pochoda. Her subject, however, is Red Hook, a blue-collar Brooklyn neighbourhood on the East River that is opening up. As Pochoda beautifully describes, the book tells of "the layers that form the Hook – the projects built over the frame houses, the pavement laid over the cobblestones, the lofts overtaking the factories, the grocery stores overlapping the warehouses." The novel starts on a hot summer night when two bored 15-year-old school girls, Val and June, impulsively decide to take a flimsy raft out into the river. The girls are soon outdone by the current and fall into the water.
Cree, a neighbourhood boy from the nearby projects, attempts to rescue the girls, but the currents prove too strong for him. Only Val is found the next morning, by a once promising musician who spent too much time in a bar the night before. He scoops Val into his arms and takes her to the nearby bodega, owned by a community-minded Lebanese man. For each of these characters, Val's rescue, and June's disappearance, sets in motion an internal search for change.
Using stark observations and sharp insights, Pochoda works the theme of change through to the level of the neighbourhood itself. Each of the characters in the story represents a layer of Red Hook, the hipsters in bars, the gentrified street, local shop, the projects. A cruise ship, the Queen Mary, will soon start docking at the pier and many think this will alter the neighbourhood for good. This change pushes at the characters' attachment to Red Hook and the people in it that they love. As Cree describes, "It's not what is here now, but was here back when – the history being buffed and polished away."
It could be argued that diverse set of characters in Visitation Street share too similar a point of view. For example, the Lebanese shopkeeper sees the world in much the same way as the Julliard-educated musician and as a young ex-con.
However, as I read I came to see that this shared point-of-view strengthens the book. The mindsets of the characters slowly melt together in the summer heat. The plot unfolds and their connections to each other become clear, as does their understanding of the neighbourhood. Its changes become theirs. In this way, Pochoda makes Red Hook feel alive.
The novel was chosen by Dennis Lehane for his HarperCollins imprint. He is known for his dark city, gritty books that do well as films, including Shutter Island, Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone. Visitation Street follows in the same vein; however, it would be a mistake to dismiss this book as a Lehane knock-off. Pochoda has created something that is entirely her own. I hear the echo of Zadie Smith's White Teeth, if her voice skipped this far across the Atlantic. Richard Price and Jonathan Lethem are held up as points of comparison, which might be in their willingness to bend the conventions of the mystery genre in a literary direction.
To really understand a place like Red Hook, to get inside a story of a place, you have to be able to understand the layers of change. While Visitation Street has the markings of a traditional whodunnit mystery – starting with a missing girl, intrigue and many suspicious characters – Pochoda shows her hand early on by fingering a culprit. The book turns, then, into a "whydunnit." Readers will come away from this satisfying mystery with a better understanding of the place and the people in it.
As for Red Hook, the Queen Mary now docks at the pier, as does a water taxi for Manhattan shoppers who want to visit the new Red Hook Ikea. There you can buy pink umbrellas, angular white deck chairs and, perhaps, set them up on the pier to watch the big ships go by.
Claire Cameron's second novel, The Bear, will be published in 2014.