Monday, July 20, 2015

“Run You Down” by Julia Dahl – The Ways of the Hasidim

Run You Down by Julia Dahl - book cover
When we are talking about ways of living, there is a certain general current, for lack of a better word, to which the majority of the people end up conforming, and not without reason. Technologically-speaking we have made huge strides over the past decades and there is no question that in a large number of countries these advancements have improved the quality of life... as well as shaped people's morals and values. There are however smaller communities in existence here and there which adhere to their own traditional way of living, and the Hasidim are one of them. As is usually the case, such societies are secretive in their nature we know little about them... which is precisely why it makes for a very interesting setting in Julia Dahl's Run You Down.

In her second book, Dahl reprises some of the characters from her first one, mainly Rebekah, Saul, Iris and Aviva. Don't worry though: your understanding of or ability to enjoy this book won't be undermined by your lack of familiarity with the first novel. In any case, Rebekah is a tabloid journalist who never met her mother, who herself escaped the isolation of her religious upbringing many years ago. Her determined plans to leave that aspect of her life behind take a turn for the worse as Rebekah is contacted by Levi Goldin whose wife Pessie drowned in her bathtub. The police see it as nothing but an accident, but Levi knows better... and a licence plate on a suspicious car seen near the house on the day tragedy struck is the only clue he has to go on. Rebekah joins up on the investigation, along with her friend and retired chief of police, Saul, and sets herself on a path to uncover a story that will possibly shatter her beliefs about herself and her own people.

As you can see, Run You Down is a kind of multi-layered novel, that is at the same time a murder mystery and an exploration of the Hasidim and their way of life in general. To start this book review from the first part, as a fictional murder mystery story it most certainly has its fair share of excitement and a few twists and turns that will make you gasp.

However, I believe that the characters are where this book's real strength lies as they are all very deeply-developed; we get too meet Aviva (Rebekah's mother) up close and personal through flashbacks that show her early years and the road she traveled that finally led her to Israel. We get to see how Rebekah's father cared for her when her mother left. We learn about Rebekah's uncle Sam whose molestation case was covered up so as not to cast a shadow on the community. Above all though, we are very privy to Rebekah's racing thoughts and evaluations of herself and the origins she seeks to deny and leave behind. It is interesting to see her conflicted nature develop and escalate, really making you wonder how she will reconcile all she has come to learn and keep on moving forward with her life.

At the same time, this book is also a very valuable insight into the lives of the Hasidim. Their culture is explained, at times in rather great detail. We become privy to their customs, their beliefs, and even their way of dressing... in other words, we are shown what their world is like from the inside out. Naturally, at the same time we are also shown the struggles that they face on a constant basis, and as the reader we bear witness to scenes of racism, anti-semitism, homophobia and supremacy. Though I will admit that some of the situations felt a bit extreme to be labelled as daily occurrences, on the whole the portrayal seemed very well-researched and informative.

To conclude, Run You Down is a great murder mystery novel that places a greater focus on the characters' development arcs and is also an eye-opening effort that gives us a window into the secretive world of Hasidic Jewish culture. The setting really makes this book feel different from most of what's out there, and I recommend it to mystery fans for a nice change of pace.


Julia Dahl


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Julia Dahl is an American writer born and raised who recently entered the literary game with her first novel, Invisible City, which was nominated for the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award for Best First Novel. In addition, it became one of Boston Globe's Best Books of 2014.

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