Long-buried secrets from the Vietnam War come to light in Invisible Girl, Tess Hudson’s involving tale about the lingering effects of the past on the present.
Growing up in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, Maggie Malone was exposed to the darker side of the world at an early age. Her mother Mai, who her father met in Vietnam and brought back to the States after the war, killed herself when Maggie was young. Her father Jimmy, a former soldier with plenty of shady connections, has always been secretive, often disappearing for long periods of time. Now an adult, Maggie runs the family bar while dealing with her own alcoholism. Fortunately she has the love and support of Bobby Gonzalez, a cop she met in AA.
One night Maggie’s brother Danny, who seems to have followed their father into a life of crime, arrives on her doorstep badly beaten. After she stitches him up, he tells her he was ambushed by three men who demanded he give them something connected to his father. Of course, in typical crime fiction fashion, they refuse to say what exactly that is and tell him he already knows, thus allowing the mystery to continue a while longer. When Maggie and her brother contact one of Jimmy’s old friends, they learn their father is dead. He possessed a secret from the war that someone will do anything to keep hidden, and now Maggie, her brother, and even Bobby’s lives are on the line.
The book is part mystery, part character drama, and it works better as the latter than the former. The plot contains few surprises. The revelations are pretty much par for the course for a Vietnam-era story; any reader who thinks of two or three things someone might want to hide involving the war will likely come up with the secrets involved here.
The story unfolds in the past and the present, with almost every other chapter flashing back to various moments in the lives of Maggie’s parents that reflect the present-day revelations. This is a good tactic, because the flashbacks are the most interesting parts of the book. Except for Maggie, all of the present-day characters lack depth, and even she tends to get overshadowed by the plot in the latter stages as the story races to its conclusion. But Jimmy and Mai are both compelling characters, and their story is an emotionally involving one.
This is the main reason the book worked for me. Despite the shallowness of the secondary characters and the general predictability of the storyline, the book was engaging and affecting. The author captures the feel of a turbulent time and place and the desperation of the people caught in volatile circumstances. While most of what happened came as no surprise, I was invested enough in them to still care. I did like Maggie for the most part and wish she hadn’t been overshadowed later on. She’s a strong, damaged person who, like most of the book’s characters, is all too acquainted with the ugly side of the world. The early sections set in Maggie’s neighborhood do a nice job portraying the locale and giving the reader a feel for it that seems authentic. The general grittiness of the characters and the world they inhabit is effective.
This is a fast-paced read. Hudson (a.k.a. Erica Orloff) won’t win many style points for her prose, but it’s generally smooth and unobtrusive, allowing the story to flow easily. Overall, Invisible Girl wasn’t perfect by any means, but in the middle of a dire reading year for me personally, it was a rare book that grabbed my attention and kept me emotionally engaged from start mostly to finish.