Manhattan Beach review: A luminous New York story

Jennifer Egan dives deep to tell a war-time story, compelling in its vivid intensity

Sat, Oct 7, 2017, 06:00

   
 

Book Title:
Manhattan Beach

ISBN-13:
978-1472150875

Author:
Jennifer Egan

Publisher:
Corsair

Guideline Price:
£16.99

When Anna Kerrigan is a young girl, she asks her father “how do you know a gangster?” He tells her that “usually, the room goes quiet when he walks in”.

“Are they scared?” Anna asks.

“If they aren’t,” says her father, “then he isn’t much of a gangster.”

The question of what makes someone a gangster is one of many explored in Jennifer Egan’s brilliant new novel, an immersive deep dive into the world of naval yards, nightclubs and crime syndicates in 1930s and 1940s New York. The novel begins in 1934, when Anna’s beloved father Eddie takes her along to meet a mysterious man called Dexter Styles at the latter’s mansion in Manhattan Beach. Anna doesn’t know it at the time, but Eddie is a “bagman” who makes deliveries from the Irish mob-controlled docker’s unions to the various powerful people they’re paying off.

When she sees men in heavy suits being lowered to the bottom of the bay to do repairs, she is determined to join them

Eight years later, the United States is at war and Anna’s father has disappeared from her life. He vanished without a trace several years earlier, leaving behind Anna, her younger sister Lydia, who is profoundly disabled, and their mother Agnes. While Agnes cares for Lydia, Anna works in the Brooklyn Naval Yard where she measures machine parts that will be part of a battleship. But when she sees men in heavy suits being lowered to the bottom of the bay to do repairs, she is determined to join them.

On the ocean floor, with the weight of water above her and a mysterious world of buried secrets around her, Anna finally feels at home. The war had, she thinks, “shaken people loose”. Whatever happens, the world has been forever changed. And then her path crosses once more with that of Styles, an encounter which opens up possibilities of change and discovery. Styles is, we discover, an honourable crook, a man who has never been accepted in the world of his privileged Wasp in-laws. But forging connections between that world and his own may offer him a more legitimate postwar future.

Nobody quite fits in in Manhattan Beach. Not Eddie, torn by the demands of his job and of his family, especially the needs of Lydia, whose condition he is unable to accept until he reaches a moment of devastating clarity in extreme circumstances. Not Styles, a powerful man who will never be powerful enough. Not Anna’s colleagues, from good-time girl Nell to Marle, the only black diver and a fellow outsider. Not Anna herself, who fears she might “slide into a cranny of the dimmed-out city and vanish”. But, as Egan shows to stunning and emotionally satisfying effect, sometimes you fall through a crack into dark oblivion. And sometimes you fall into a world where you finally fit.

This is, on the surface, a traditional telling of a conventional story

This is a book drenched in water, through which all of the book’s most vivid sequences move: Lydia’s brief moments of freedom when immersed in a bath; the incredibly evocative scenes in which Anna moves around at the bottom of the sea; and an extraordinary section following the experiences of merchant seamen struggling to survive in the Indian Ocean after their ship is torpedoed. For Egan’s characters water is both friend and enemy, a hiding place and a locus of liberation, the bringer of death and the means of discovery.

If, like me, you were dazzled by Egan’s last novel, the wildly inventive A Visit From The Goon Squad, in which she effortlessly juggled timelines and played narrative tricks, you may be surprised that her new novel is written in a much more conventional way. There are no chapters told via PowerPoint (or telegram, chalkboards, or any other 1940s’ method of communication). This is, on the surface, a traditional telling of a conventional story: a missing father, a plucky young girl trying to make it in a man’s world, and a gangster who is also a good man. But to find a compelling story well told, one that is full of complex characters and sentences so luminous they stop you in your tracks, is one of literature’s greatest pleasures. That pleasure is bestowed liberally by Jennifer Egan in Manhattan Beach.

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