Visitation Street is billed as a book about teenagers June and Val, who take a pink inflatable raft out into the bay from Red Hook, a deprived Brooklyn neighbourhood, one humid summer evening. Val washes ashore later that night; June’s body cannot be found. Nevertheless, despite the weight of this tragedy, the novel is more about Red Hook itself, following a group of characters through its streets, bodegas, projects and ruins. Ivy Pochoda lived in the neighbourhood for several years herself, and while I’m in no position to judge, this novel feels authentic, down to the details of what the better-off white girls from the local Catholic school drink at parties (‘red and blue Solo cups half filled with brown and pink drinks and the pummelled skins of lemons and limes’) to the look of a black teenager’s decrepit bedroom in the Houses, the local housing project (‘the water map on the ceiling, the brown and yellow bubbles tracing the pathways of his upstairs neighbour’s leaky plumbing’).
Inevitably, in this ensemble cast, some stories are more engaging than others; I was gripped by Val’s difficulty in coming to terms with what has happened to June, and the way that June also haunts the slightly older Monique, who has felt guilty ever since she refused to let the girls hang out with her on the night of June’s death. In contrast, Fadi, a Lebanese bodega owner who runs an unofficial neighbourhood newspaper, feels like more of a plot device to draw the various threads together, and I found it difficult to warm to Jonathan, a music teacher who spends most nights drinking in the bar under his flat, and who becomes unhealthily fascinated by Val.
It is Cree, however, the occupant of the water-damaged bedroom in the Houses, who stood out for me; in many ways this novel is really about his struggle to come to terms with his father’s random shooting some years ago, and the way that his mother has struggled to cope ever since. Cree finds his own abandoned hideouts throughout the neighbourhood, spending time with his father’s old boat, but also claiming ‘a sliver of garden wedged between two tenements, a bird’s-eye lookout over the water from a towering warehouse’ and ‘a secret lair in an abandoned longshoreman’s bar’, where he ‘cleared the trash from the empty bar, sanded the splintering wooden mermaid figurehead, and pretended he was visiting Bermuda.’ There’s a minor thread about gentrification, and the appropriation of neighbourhood culture, here. When Cree turns up at his bar one day to find a couple sanding and polishing to reopen it as a business: ‘He wonders if this couple knows how the late-afternoon light plummets in narrow columns through two holes in the roof of the porch out back, how the wooden figurehead casts a scary shadow if you sneak up on her the wrong way.’ Similarly, the New York Post uses a picture of a Red Hook teenager jumping from a pier into the bay, without any attribution; the boy reclaims his leap by graffiting it across a tunnel. When illuminated by the lights of a passing bus, ‘it’s a flipbook, a perfect moving image, taking the jumper higher off the ground.’
This sort of social commentary, however, is ultimately subsumed by Cree’s increasing awareness of the weight of the past, the sense that owning one’s own history can be too much of a weight to bear. After losing his hideout in the longshoreman’s bar, he thinks that the whole of Red Hook is a series of layers: ‘A neighbourhood of ghosts. It’s not such a bad place.’ Later, however, Cree’s mysterious friend, Ren, tells him that he has to get away: ‘Stay here long enough, you’ll become one of them – another ghost haunting the Hook.’ Cree’s arc, therefore, has a complicated relationship to the past; he both needs to reclaim it and move on from it if he’s to live his life. This talk of ghosts becomes more dominant in the last section of Visitation Street, which takes on a more mystical feel as Cree’s grandmother and aunt, with their firm beliefs in a spirit world, take a larger role in the narrative. This, for me, felt like a bit of a cop-out, an easy way out for a book that is otherwise so sharply observant and atmospheric. Nevertheless, Visitation Street is far more than just another book about a missing girl.