After reading Ivy Pochoda’s masterful debut novel, it’s clear why Dorchester-born mystery writer Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River”) chose to publish “Visitation Street” under his eponymous imprint. Pochoda shares Lehane’s unique ability to bring gritty urban streetscapes to life, depicting hardscrabble characters with dignity, even redemption. “Visitation Street” follows a group of characters with limited economic opportunities as they struggle with loss, the instability of their lives, and the everyday challenges of staying safe in a neighborhood where violence lurks around every street corner.
Pochoda sets her mystery in Red Hook, Brooklyn, a place of urban blight rife with class and racial conflict but also a close-knit community where people know each other’s business. Where some might see hopelessness and ingrained, transgenerational poverty, Pochoda sees human drama constantly unfolding as her characters seek to craft better lives despite woefully limited prospects. Pochoda evokes a certain grim lyricism for a place she once lived and where residents make do with what they have: “makeshift shelters, concrete foundations with tarps as roofs, shipping containers with laundry lines strung across their short ends, and shopping carts for storage. Battered chairs . . . Trash rolls like tumbleweed.” Shangri-La this isn’t.
Pochoda brings us deep inside the Red Hook community, adeptly shifting her narrative from a Lebanese convenience store owner, a disillusioned teacher at a local school, a lost young man whose father has been killed, a lonely young woman whose best friend has disappeared after a late-night, just-for-kicks rafting excursion. What readers will find themselves most drawn to are characters looking for a sense of identity, a larger meaning in their lives. None of these characters are trapped, they are too vibrantly three-dimensional for that, but like Jay Gatsby, they look out upon the light across the water and struggle toward some imagined, glittering future that often seems just out of reach.
One summer night in Red Hook, 15-year-old June goes missing and her friend Val washes up on shore, barely alive. What happened to June, people ask? Pochoda describes Red Hook as a living thing, another character that breathes life into her big-hearted, ambitious novel. While Pochoda brilliantly depicts the grime and submerged violence of Red Hook, she also soars above it, showing us the powerful aspirations of characters who hope and dream despite every reason not to. Like Lehane, Pochoda is an author with a profound understanding of human resilience, our indefatigable determination to seek light through the darkness. Her characters don’t want to be rich, but to find their better selves, move beyond their limited circumstances. In Pochoda’s telling, these aspirations are heroic.
There’s a large element of magic realism in Pochoda’s narrative. The novel brims with ghosts and visitations from the departed. The missing June speaks to a neighborhood friend whose family is known for clairvoyance. A young murderer is haunted by the ghost of the man he killed, and seeks to set things right by helping the murdered man’s son. Pochoda describes one character as “a nobody, a ghost with no name. He could disappear from Red Hook and no one would have known he had been back in the first place.” The past feels ever-present; people disappear and are never found. Others are invisible, nameless. Still, Pochoda brings readers to a very real place and inside the difficult lives of people we can’t help but sympathize with.
In the end, the mysteries are solved, but the future remains the place “where echo meets shadow.” What’s clear is that Lehane has an eye for literary talent: Ivy Pochoda’s “Visitation Street” is novel that pulls you deeper and deeper along in its powerful current.