Lost girl shakes up a Brooklyn neighborhood

Ivy Pochoda’s impressive and atmospheric second novel arrives with a certain set of expectations, which she swiftly transcends. Visitation Street is the second release from Dennis Lehane Books, the imprint of HarperCollins with one of the genre’s best at the creative helm (Lehane is the author of such classics as Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River and Shutter Island). Considering his works, you might imagine Pochoda’s book is also a gritty crime novel. Visitation Street is definitely gritty, but it’s less about solving a mystery than taking the pulse of an urban waterfront community teetering on the brink of change.

Set in Brooklyn’s Red Hook district, the story begins on a sultry night when bored teenagers June and Val set off in search of fun lugging a pink rubber raft. (When you’re young, “[s]ummer is everybody else’s party,” Pochoda explains.) Bickering — June is ready to move on to the more mature pursuits of alcohol and boys, Val nervous about the whole idea — they head down to the water for an adventure and paddle out into the filthy Hudson River. “The moon’s shining like it’s out of its mind. The raft is handed from one wave to the next. To their left, Staten Island is glittering . ... ”

But in the morning, only one girl is found, setting off events that rock the neighborhood and alter the lives of many residents.

Among those most troubled by the disappearance are Jonathan, the formerly wealthy, on-the-verge-of success performer now reduced to alcoholic excess and teaching music to bored students at the nearby Catholic school, and Cree, whose mother’s grief has kept him from filling out his community college application though he longs to flee Red Hook’s projects. Both men are stuck in a place that seems less and less like home.

Not everyone is so pessimistic. Shop owner Fadi, eager for the debut arrival of Queen Mary at the docks, writes a neighborhood newsletter in hopes of uniting the community and discovering what happened to the missing girl — even though a Whole Foods-like establishment planned for the waterfront could shutter his store. Others, like Cree’s cousin Monique and the mysterious graffiti artist Ren, can’t shake ghosts of the past.

Pochoda, also author of The Art of Disappearing, writes in an urgent yet eloquent style, and she offers poignant insights into these characters as they hope and fail and struggle on. But what’s most haunting is her searing, all-too-familiar portrait of a community bitterly divided by the usual suspects of American unrest — race, poverty, culture, drugs. Her Red Hook is alive and not well, a place ruled by real and artificial boundaries, a city of flesh and blood and failed dreams.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.

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