Manhattan Beach

Jennifer Egan



Review by Dani Garavelli

IT took just seven pages for me to fall under the spell of Anna Kerrigan, the main character of Jennifer Egan's latest novel Manhattan Beach. Standing on the sand with the daughter of gangster Dexter Styles, the self-possessed 11-year-old peels off her socks and black patent leather shoes and plunges her white, bony feet into the icy water. Why? To feel the cold; to keep the younger girl “awed and guessing”; to experience the jouissance – a “flame of ache that felt unexpectedly pleasant”.

Anna is the beating heart of this sprawling historical saga set as the Great Depression finally yields to the war and the struggling waterfronts of New York thrum with activity once more. Born with an innate sense of self, she steers her own course through life, with only a passing hat tip to the social strictures that limit other women. Her unconventional decisions - to live alone, to become a diver at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, to try to find her missing father, Eddie – are driven less by feminist fervour than a thrawnness and a refusal to be thwarted, either professionally or sexually.

Yet Anna is far from Manhattan Beach's only pleasure. Egan's other protagonists – Eddie, the union go-between-turned-syndicate-snitch, and Styles, the gangster who would like to turn legit – are also beautifully drawn and their inter-locking stories told in language so sharp and unpretentious you scarcely notice the implausibility of some of the underworld-related plot lines.

The novel, with its traditional, linear structure, is a departure for Egan, who is known for the post-modern tricksiness of books such as A Visit from the Goon Squad which earned her the Pulitzer Prize. Indeed, in its harking back to the great Victorian novel, it has more in common with Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch than with Egan's earlier work.

The story itself is relatively simple: Eddie, short of employment, has become a bagman for a union boss passing pay-offs to the mob; he has a close relationship with Anna, but has failed to bond with her severely disabled sister Lydia.

Soon, disaffected by the offhand way he is treated and desperate for money to buy Lydia a chair which will allow her to sit upright, he meets Styles, a nightclub owner/racketeer, and offers to spy on those operating gambling scams in his venues.

Fast forward several years and Eddie appears to have abandoned his family; Anna is measuring parts for the Battleship Missouri with lots of boring “marrieds.” Hungry for adventure and drawn to the murkier side of life, she learns to dive and develops a Freudian obsession with Styles. Believing him to be implicated in her father's disappearance, she insinuates herself into his life in an attempt to uncover the truth.

Manhattan Beach bristles with glorious evocations of New York as a sea port: the boardwalks at Coney Island, the piers at Wallabout Bay, the boat house at Red Hook. Egan's journalistic experience is evident in her meticulous research into the city's maritime history: the battleships, cargo vessels and frigates which frequented its waters and the role of divers in ship repair.

The scene where Anna is first dressed in the diving suit, with its rubber collar, 84lb belt and spherical brass helmet, is so perfectly rendered, the reader shares her sense of claustrophobia as she struggles to bear the weight of her new outfit, and of history.

Egan's forensic descriptions of the smells, sounds and characters of the naval yard summon the ghost of Joseph Mitchell, although later passages, where delirious sailors are adrift off the coast of Somaliland, owe more to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Manhattan Beach was more or less complete before Donald Trump became president and one of its joys is that its only attempt to make itself relevant to today's chaos is a generalised foreshadowing of a post-war America which has exported its dreams, language and culture to the rest of the world.

Instead the book creates a self-contained universe, a refuge from the current madness, although its themes – of ageing and loss and atoning for past mistakes – are universal.

The sea is its binding agent: a force both life-giving and destructive; its incessant swish – captured in Lydia's “seetheseaseethesea” babble – echoes throughout as if a shell is being held up to the ear. For Anna, the sea represents both strength and danger, for Lydia, exhilaration and freedom. For Eddie, it is a source of redemption and epiphany.

Outside the main narrative, there are a few flaws. Lydia, who cannot move and utters just a few barely decipherable words, exists only as a projection of Anna's needs. And a few other potentially interesting characters such as Nell, the good-time girl and corruptive influence, are under-developed to the point of caricature.

But these are minor flaws; tiny scratch marks on the prow of a magnificent literary vessel that only consolidates Egan's reputation as a master of her craft.