Restoration Heights is a difficult book to review. On the one hand, I didn’t dislike it, yet, I didn’t make me feel much of anything. The narration is rather cold, which creates a distance between the reader and the characters, and the mystery itself…well it resembled a prolonged meandering from A to B and back again.
The story focuses on Reddick, a thirty-something, white artist, who lives in a historically black Brooklyn neighbourhood. He makes his living as an art handler, working for the people he despises the most: the rich.
The day after he crosses paths with a young drunk woman, he discovers that she is 1) Hannah, the fiancé of the son of one of the wealthiest family in the city and 2) she has gone missing.
Feeling responsible, and seeing that no one else seems worried for her, he undergoes an investigation of his own.
In spite of Reddick’s obsessive search for Hannah, this story didn’t strike me as being a mystery or an amateur detective type of story. Yes, he ‘interviews’ people, he concocts wild scenarios in which Hannah was killed because of this or that…most of Reddick’s friends tell him to drop it but he is
stupidly determined to find the truth. The trails he follows were boring and often had little to do with Hannah.
A large part of this novel revolves long conversations/discussions that Reddick has with his ‘friends’. From gentrification, race and class biases, definitions of ‘privilege’ and or the benefits and limitations created by ‘labels’….these could be interesting interactions. Often however, I felt that I was reading a social commentary on New York —and the United States— rather than a piece of fiction. It was almost didactical: person A offers one view, person B offers another, person C agrees with both A and B…it felt contrived at times.
I love novels that have a great sense of place and time but in Restoration Heights these seemed almost overwhelming. Reddick is constantly going on about Restoration Heights —a new housing development— and even before he has any actual evidence he believes that Hannah’s disappearance is connected to this development. The buildings and Reddick’s various surroundings are rendered in a rather methodical way. Yes, we know what the structure of Reddick’s neighbourhood but other places he visits in his ‘investigation’ but they didn’t strike me as vividly as they should have, especially given the page-time the author spends on them. Barbara Vine, one of my favourite authors, who writes a very different sort of crime, breathes life into her buildings/houses. Given that Restoration Heights is narrated in such an unemotional manner I found that both its characters and its location lacked life.
Once I adapted to the impersonal writing style, it was easier for me to keep reading. I can’t say that I was ever invested in the storyline or affected by any of the characters but there were occasional observations (often relating to a painting) that really stood out.
If you can look past a pointless mystery, or if you enjoy using google maps, well, look no further.
Maybe American readers will find the novel’s setting and social commentary more engaging than I did.