Manhattan Beach - Book Review
Jennifer Egan’s novel Manhattan Beach is one of the best-written books I have read recently. The language is rich, and the nuanced story flows well. Being a work of historical fiction based in Brooklyn during the Second World War, this is a story near to my heart. And like my first novel, Above the Water, the sea (or bodies of water, in general) plays a central role in Manhattan Beach.
Anna Kerrigan is the daughter of Eddie, who through union ties becomes tied to the mob as a lowly bagman. At home Anna’s mother cares for a sister, Lydia, suffering from cerebral palsy/muscular dystrophy (not sure which). One day Eddie disappears. Many neighbors assume it was due to the crushing burden of caring for three dependents (one of them crippled) during the Great Depression. Before Eddie leaves the scene, he takes 11-year old Anna to meet a prospective new boss: a young mob leader named Dexter Styles. Fast forward eight years, and Anna—forced to be the main breadwinner for the fatherless family—is working as an inspector at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Eventually, through dogged determination, luck, and skill she becomes a diver and inspects battleships in the murky waters of the East River before they are sent off to distant shores to wage battle for an America now at war. Meanwhile, Dexter Styles has moved even further up in the world, rubbing shoulders with bankers, and titans of industry that he has come to know through his father-in-law. Dexter also owns a swanky nightclub in Manhattan, and it is there one evening that Anna sees him. She has long suspected Dexter had something to do with her father’s disappearance. She boldly introduces herself to him. Soon, they not only become lovers, but she gets Dexter to show her where her father may have disappeared. Though it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine, Anna ‘borrows’ a bulky dive suit from the Navy Yard so that she can plumb the depths off Manhattan Beach in search of her father’s grave. This is really the only part of the novel that strays far from verisimilitude. Besides the rich prose and excellent storytelling, Egan expertly weaves the smaller story onto the grand setting of the novel. We see New York as the beating heart of a burgeoning superpower, and Anna is in the middle of the larger global conflagration, even as she struggles to support her mother and invalid sister. The theme of water as a looming presence both hiding and revealing secrets, embodying the giver of life and death, is ever present in the novel. In one scene, for example, Anna’s sister Lydia briefly is shaken from her tortured world with a mere glimpse of the ocean. Egan’s descriptions of Anna working in the dark world under the East River on ships “like skyscrapers turned over on their sides” are really well done. It’s clear Egan did thorough research on the subject and on life in wartime New York. And it’s refreshing to see a strong female protagonist in a wartime setting. Manhattan Beach really pulled me in, and as I read it, I found myself immersed in Brooklyn apartment tenements, the Navy Yard, Sunday brunches on sloping lawns on Long Island, and Manhattan night clubs. It was an enjoyable read. I hope there will be a movie one day. #austinauthor #jodyferguson #bookreview #goodreads