Ivy Pochoda; Sceptre, £16.99
The sense of place is so strong that it seems like the purpose of this evocative novel.
The ‘place’ are the streets, houses, bars, shops and piers at the watery, rundown end of Brooklyn. None of the characters ever jumps into the subway, or a big yellow taxi, for the more familiar cityscape of Manhattan, for instance. Theirs is a small area in a vast city. Pochoda has set out her stall even before the first page, by including a sketch of a Red Hook street map. The couple of dozen Brooklyn blocks lapped by the Hudson is all there is. Quite literally, that’s all she wrote.
Two teenage girls take a child’s dinghy out into the bay. Only Val returns. Jill’s image is photocopied and taped to lampposts and her disappearance haunts Val and, for a time, the rest of the community. That is the story and the novel concentrates on how a community deals with the loss, from the school friends who trump up their closeness to the missing girl, to the investigation, which burns brightly and fades fast.
The first 20 pages give us the bones of the story, and the last 20 pages flash back and clarify who did what and why. The story is more of a framing device than a satisfying narrative.
What is achieved is the illumination of the shadowy lives from around the docks. The late-night life is fleshed out with barflies, a transsexual or two, and the lonely sexual encounters that enliven those struggling with loss.
Pochoda is lyrical and empathetic, and writes evocatively and compassionately about her characters and her place. A lot of her characters are damaged goods and have the tropes of the rebel without a cause.
The girls who go off in the raft are fed up with everyone, and maybe even each other.
A central character hangs around a boat that his murdered dad was fixing up for the elusive voyage into the sunset. Shadowy figures watch out for others and we wonder if it is for nefarious reasons. Pochoda is enough of a writer to see harsh realities, and enough of a dreamer to see providence in unlikely places.
Early in the story, it is hard not to feel that the author’s own hero is a Lebanese deli owner, called Fadi, who is prepared to give a loser a second chance.
He offers shelter, work and the odd free pastry to some of the community’s shunned, and even takes an enlightened view of the neighbourhood graffiti artist with a past. And he writes the local newsletter.
While the evocative stuff is strong, there are times in the muddling middle where a stronger narrative drive would have helped.
But Pochoda’s writing is good and compassionate.
At the end, it is abundantly clear that Fadi’s agenda sounds very close to what the novelist’s own mission statement must be: “… listening for the melody of the local noise, the grinding, rattling, slamming, and silence. The music leaking from the bar, from passing cars, from open windows. The sad moan of the telephone wires.”
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