In this time when social media is ascendant it’s hard to believe, but there was once a time when newspapers were everywhere. You couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a print reporter. Before radio and television the amount of power wielded by investigative print reporters was enormous. Even in those halcyon days however, there were stringers. Heaven knows there is plenty of fiction out there about star reporters, but Invisible City by Julia Dahl goes the other route, and gives us the low-down on what it’s like to be a stringer for a big, and probably struggling newspaper. There have been stringers, from Hunter Thompson to Mark Twain, who have found fame but in this book the story is about Rebekah Roberts, newly graduated from colleges and lucky to be working for the New York Tribune.
Most books about journalists fall in love with the cliché of the grizzled veteran, so it’s a pleasant change of pace to have a story about a young woman getting her feet wet in the rather tawdry world of the news business. Another pleasant surprise is that Rebekah is very much a human –scale character who gets her story with a mixture of guile tenacity and just plain hard work. It’s an interesting story to boot, about the mysterious death of an Hasidic woman. Rebekah has an edge here, because her mother was an orthodox Jewish woman, who left her not long after birth. Goodness knows being abandoned by your mother is never good, but Rebekah makes the most of her circumstances as she investigates not only the woman’s death but a ton of mysterious mitigating circumstances that are peculiar to the Hasidic world, the “invisible city” of the title.
It’s a harrowing story as well, dealing with domestic violence, sexual abuse, societal pressure and mental illness. There are also links to Rebekah’s life as she meets a mysterious Orthodox policeman who know her mother, and tells Rebekah that she is still alive, which Rebekah did not know.
Ms. Dahl lets the story unfold gradually, and shows us more than she tells, in plain brunt prose. It’s also refreshing to see the Hasidic world portrayed fairly, and honestly, at least I think so. No one is a black villain and there are few shining white heroes either, but lots of solid if unspectacular characters. The only reason I didn’t rank this book bit higher is that Rebekah’s personal story, which emerges again and again at random intervals in this tale, isn’t nearly as interesting as the story she is following, so those pasts of the book seem to just drag the pace down a bit. Still it’s a good solid thriller with unique setting and characters and I look forward to what Ms. Dahl writes next.